Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 12 October 2017

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Domestic Violence: Police Resources

1. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of police resources to support victims of domestic violence. (901055)

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has noted in recent inspections that forces have protected dedicated resources to support victims of domestic abuse. The number of police referrals, prosecutions and convictions for domestic abuse has increased significantly since 2010, but this Government are not complacent. In this Session, we will introduce a landmark domestic violence and abuse Bill to better protect and support victims and to bring perpetrators to justice.

According to the crime survey for England and Wales, an estimated 2 million adults aged 16 to 59, mostly women, say that they were victims of domestic abuse in the past year. Do not the Government accept that the massive cuts in police resources that they have inflicted will inevitably mean that there will be fewer arrests and fewer prosecutions for domestic violence, leaving more women in danger?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question, but I simply do not accept that at all. Interestingly, funding for Bedfordshire police has risen by 1.8% this year—that is £1.8 million. I hope that he will join me in congratulating his local police and crime commissioner on her personal leadership in tackling domestic violence in Bedfordshire and, in particular, on Project Emerald, which is delivering record numbers of prosecutions and protecting more women than ever before from domestic abuse.

Which police force responds to domestic violence the best and which responds to it the worst, and will the Minister get them together in the same room at the same time, so that one can inform the other?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I can assure him that through the rigorous inspections of HMICFRS and the Home Secretary’s leadership in bringing together Departments, we are doing everything that we can to support police officers to deliver the best possible outcomes for victims of domestic abuse and violence.

The Minister said that legislation to tackle violence against women will be introduced. Will she comment on the practice of upskirting, on which a constituent of mine is leading a campaign? The practice involves individuals taking photographs underneath women’s skirts. I understand that it is unlawful in Scotland, so what plans does she have to introduce some form of penalty for it here?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Any sort of violence against and abuse of women and girls is totally unacceptable. This Government have a very ambitious strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, and of course we are always looking to make sure that police officers and our criminal justice system have all the measures that they need to keep women and girls safe.

Alcohol plays a significant part in the scourge of domestic violence, so will the Minister consider using the forthcoming legislation she mentioned to allow the use of alcohol abstinence monitoring orders in domestic violence cases, given that they are proving so successful with respect to other violent offences?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the important role that, tragically, alcohol can play in cases of domestic abuse and violence. It also causes wider harms. Dealing with the abuse of alcohol is a key part of our modern crime prevention strategy, which is why we are looking carefully at what more we can do to keep people safe, including through new measures on alcohol.

The reluctance of victims of domestic abuse to complain, and the law’s chronic failure to prevent serial abusers, are distressingly commonplace. Does the Minister agree that a domestic violence register of convicted repeat offenders would help the police to save lives?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not accept the premise at all. Confidence in the police is higher than it has ever been, and more and more victims are feeling confident enough to come forward. We see more victims coming are forward, more prosecutions and greater use of the powers that we already have to keep women safe. As I said, we are leaving no stone unturned and we are very ambitious about what more we can do to keep women and girls throughout the country safe.

Leaving the EU: Equalities and Human Rights

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on equalities and human rights. (901056)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, on ensuring that all the protections in the Equality Act 2010, including the public sector equality duty, will continue to apply after we have left the EU.

I apologise for being a newbie, Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister confirm that pregnant women will not be obliged to work night shifts after we have left the EU? They currently enjoy such a protection under EU law.

EU equalities law has already been overwhelmingly transposed into UK law via the Equality Act. As I said, Ministers must also comply with a public sector equality duty. On workers’ rights more broadly, the Prime Minister was clear in her Lancaster House speech, which she made some time ago, that one of our key priorities will be to protect and maintain them.

As the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, may I say how heartening it is to see seven Ministers present to respond to Women and Equalities questions, which shows the importance that the Government attach to these issues?

Ministers have been consistent and clear that their policy objective with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is for things to stay the same after we leave the EU, with our having time to debate policy changes after that point. It is clear, however, that the removal of the charter of fundamental rights in itself creates a significant change in the underpinning of equality rights. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can avoid that unintended consequence?

The right hon. Lady should take it as a compliment that seven Ministers are required to cope with her.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) points out, the Government are committed to this agenda, which is why so many Ministers are prepared to answer questions this morning. She raises an important point. I have been very clear that there will be no backsliding on our equalities agenda and law as we leave the EU. I know that my right hon. Friend has a meeting with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) next week. That will be an important time to discuss how we can make sure that there will be no backsliding.

Many protections in EU law, especially equality rights, have already been written into UK law. Does the Minister therefore agree that our leaving the EU should not cause any detrimental impact on or removal of the rights and equalities that we currently enjoy, and will merely present us with the opportunity to further improve the law wherever we in the UK see fit to do so?

Absolutely, and it is worth my pointing out that in several areas, UK law already goes beyond existing EU law.

Does the excellent Secretary of State agree that one of the many advantages of coming out of the EU is the fact that this Parliament will be able to improve equalities and human rights without being restricted by the European Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been one of those countries around the world that has constantly stood up for human rights and that has been credible because of our human rights record and our legal framework. We are determined that there will be no backsliding. I have no doubt that this Government, and future Governments, will want to continue to make progress.

Women’s State Pension Age

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of changes to the state pension age on women born in the 1950s. (901057)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has regular discussions with the Minister for Women and Equalities, but the Government will not be revisiting the state pension age for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Acts 1995, 2007 and 2011.

What encouragement are the Government giving to the 1,524 women in my constituency of Hull West and Hessle who are suffering because of the lack of notice given by this Government about changes to the state pension age?

The Government have already introduced transitional arrangements at a cost of £1.1 billion. The cost of reversing the Acts would be in excess of £70 billion and create an inequality between women and men.

What is the Minister’s view of any proposal to change legislation that would then favour women as opposed to men in pensions legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am not a legal professional, but I think that any amendment to the current legislation that creates a new inequality between men and women would unquestionably be highly dubious as a matter of law.

8. Does the Minister recognise that signatures to early-day motions in this House since the general election show that there is cross-party support, and probably majority support in this House, for justice for the Women Against State Pension Inequality? If and when the WASPI question comes to the House on a Backbench Business motion or an Opposition day motion, will the Government sit on their hands like they have been doing, or will they allow the House to express its will? (901063)

The hon. Gentleman is very right to raise that question. Clearly, there is support on that matter across the House. However, it is also right that arrangements for the state pension system reflect welcome changes in average life expectancy and address long-standing inequalities in pension age. If we had not equalised state pension ages, women would be expected to spend more than 40% of their adult life in retirement.

Like scores of other 1950s women, I have struggled to get any information on the availability of apprenticeships that a Minister in a Westminster Hall debate on 5 July suggested were an option for struggling 1950s women. Can the Minister confirm whether she agrees with her colleague and thinks that his suggestion of an apprenticeship was really an appropriate one for tens of thousands of women currently being denied their pensions?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady is considering taking on an apprenticeship, because a very large number of women over the age of 60 are. I do not think that anybody should be forced to take one on, but those who want to should be practically encouraged to do so. Between August 2016 and April 2017, the number of apprenticeship starts for people aged 60 and over was 3,500, an increase on the previous year.

Discrimination Claims: Tribunal Fees

4. What steps she is taking to ensure that women who were unable to pursue pregnancy and maternity discrimination claims due to the cost of employment tribunal fees are able to bring forward their cases. (901058)

Anyone who believes that they were prevented from bringing an employment tribunal claim because they could not afford to pay the fee can make an application to the tribunal for permission to bring a claim out of time. The tribunal would then consider the application and apply the relevant legal criteria.

The Minister is in a muddle. He is supposed to be grouping the question with No. 6, which was the request of his Department to my office to which I agreed, but which he appears to have forgotten.

I apologise, Mr Speaker. With permission, I would like to group questions 4 and 6, and I refer to the answer that I have just given.

6. What steps she is taking to ensure that women who were unable to pursue pregnancy and maternity discrimination claims due to the cost of employment tribunal fees are able to bring forward their cases. (901060)

The Government’s research into maternity-related discrimination shows that one in nine mothers reports that they were either dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly that they had to leave their job. Following the Supreme Court case brought by Unison, the union I used to work for, what specific action are the Government taking to identify those who could have brought claims but did not because the Government acted unlawfully?

The Supreme Court judgment was clear on fees and we immediately stopped charging fees in response. We are putting in place the detailed arrangements to ensure that those who paid fees are refunded. We will shortly announce the practical detail that the hon. Gentleman is looking for. As I indicated a moment ago, those who could not apply to the tribunal because of the fee will now have the opportunity to do so.

I understand that the Government are considering how to approach the system, but will the Minister rule out any type of up-front fee to access justice in employment tribunals in the future?

We are clear that we are accepting the Supreme Court judgment. If the hon. Gentleman would like to read the judgment, he will see that it makes clear that there can be, in principle, a place for fees in the justice system. We need to strike the right balance between taxpayers subsidising the justice system and those who benefit from it making a contribution, but only when they are able to do so.

May I first ask the House to send our best get well wishes to our spokesperson on women and equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who cannot be here today because she was in a car accident last week and is recovering at home?

I was glad to see the Supreme Court rule out tribunal fees because it has been a case of justice denied for so many thousands of women over the past years. There are still barriers for women accessing tribunal fees. The March of the Mummies will take place on Tuesday 31 October to ask specifically for an extension from three to six months to allow women more time to apply for the tribunal fees. Will the Minister meet me and those campaigners on 31 October?

First, I join the hon. Lady in extending my condolences and those of the Government to her colleague.

In relation to the Supreme Court judgment, I have to correct her. It was the balance of the fees that was an issue, and the judgment made it clear that it was, in principle, possible to have fees, but I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and look at her suggestions.

Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been, but we can do better. We have introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for the first time and large employers now have six months left to report their gender pay gaps.

The gender pay gap remains as high as 34% in the east midlands. In my region in Wales, it is now 18%. That is largely due to the efforts of the Welsh Assembly Government in trying to support organisations in Wales, funded by the European social fund. What assessment has the Minister made of the use of that fund to help to close the gender pay gap? Will she examine this, to replicate it post-Brexit?

We are of course looking at all the European funds we currently have and how we can best ensure that we continue the work that they are doing post-Brexit. We can all do a lot more on this specific issue. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent Government Equalities Office employer events, which we have done around the country; I think he attended the one in Cardiff. The key thing is that the transparency requirement now on companies will, as much as anything else, force them to be clear-cut about where their policies lie. We are already seeing that, when that light of transparency is shone on the data, companies are producing action plans that are really making a difference.

Are the Government as committed to eliminating the part-time gender pay gap as they claim to be about eliminating the full-time gender pay gap? Will the Minister set out exactly what they are doing to eliminate the part-time gender pay gap?

We are absolutely committed to eliminating all the different gender pay gaps. Through the transparency work, we will ensure that companies produce clear-cut action plans that cover all their employees, whether or not they have flexible working arrangements.

Two days ago, the First Secretary of State made a statement to the House on the race disparity audit. He also told the House, as a white man with privilege, that he knew more about race than me—a black women with lived experiences—and Opposition Members, who are a broad church. As there are seven Ministers here today, will the Minister for Women and Equalities highlight seven of her Government’s policies, new or old, over the past seven years—seven is the magic number—that have helped to narrow the inequalities in our country?

Income inequality is at its lowest level. In the Department of Education alone, we have done significant work to ensure that black and minority ethnic pupils are doing better in school. Like me, the hon. Lady is a London MP and will know that there have been dramatic improvements in educational outcomes for BME communities here in London. More young people from BME communities are going to university than before. In fact, the ethnic group that is now the least likely to go to university in the UK is that of white British males. We are taking action across the board. The important thing about the race disparity audit is that, alongside things such as gender pay gap reporting, it is about using transparency to shine a light on areas where inequalities do still exist. I would like to think that we can work together as a Parliament to tackle those inequalities.

Childcare Responsibilities

In relation to progress on childcare, we are taking unprecedented steps to support parents with caring responsibilities, whether by providing tax-free childcare or doubling the provision of free childcare from 15 to 30 hours, and nearly 80% of parents in the early-delivery areas with 30 hours reported that the extended hours had given them more flexibility in their work choices. Of course, the right to request flexible working is also helping parents to balance work and care between them in a way that works for them and their families.

Does the Minister agree that it is important that the message goes out that mothers and fathers who choose to stay at home full time to care for their children, and who often care for those in their wider families and communities, are just as valued and appreciated for their contribution to society as those who of us who go out to work?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The approach in our Government policy agenda has been to give choice and to enable families to make the choices that are right for them. For many people, that will involve staying at home, and that is a choice that we also want to support. We have taken steps to equalise the choice for those parents who want to stay in the workplace and continue with careers, so that they can do so while also bringing up a family.

Caring for a terminally ill child can be absolutely devastating for parents. Currently, however, parents in this circumstance are not able to access disability living allowance mobility payments when the child is under three, despite having to carry about often very bulky medical equipment. Will the Government overcome this anomaly and support parents in this absolutely devastating situation?

Our hearts go out to any parent in what is, as the hon. Lady says, a devastating situation. We have a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions here today, who I know will take note of what she said. More broadly, we are spending nearly £3.6 billion on carer’s allowance every year. However, I think that we all recognise the responsibility we have, as a Government and a community, to support those who are carrying out such vital roles.

Topical Questions

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.