Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 23 November 2017

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

BAME Women

All Departments carefully consider the equalities impact of individual policy decisions on those who share protected characteristics, including gender and race, in line with the Government’s strong commitment to equality issues. From April 2018, the national living wage will increase by 4.4%. Past increases have disproportionately benefited women and those from BAME backgrounds, as well as the disabled.

Does the Minister accept the figures contained in the “Intersecting Inequalities” report by the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust, showing the disproportionate impact of tax and benefit changes on women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and will the Government issue an official response?

I am aware of that work. Part of the challenge is that we need to see much more clearly the broader picture in relation to how Budgets and Government decisions affect BAME women. The analysis that the hon. Gentleman mentions does not take into account the impact of the national living wage, the changes we have made to childcare—introducing 30 hours’ free care—the work that we are doing on reducing the gender pay gap, the introduction of shared parental leave or the introduction of increased flexible working. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has been very clear that

“what is possible falls a long way short of a full gender impact assessment”,

and that is the underlying weakness in the analysis.[Official Report, 18 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 4MC.]

Does the Minister agree that the welcome announcement in the Budget yesterday of £600 per pupil towards the study of maths at higher than GCSE level will be of huge benefit for BAME women, and women across the board, because many studies show that women with higher science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications can earn up to 20% more?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this has been a focus for the Government for the past seven years. The next steps were announced yesterday, with the £600 extra for young people enrolling on such A-levels, alongside a commitment to have more transparency on the STEM A-level subjects that girls are taking, so that we can really focus on gender disparities and seek to address them. It is probably worth pointing out that maths A-level has been the most popular A-level in our country since 2013, which shows that although we have a long way to go, this Government are already making a difference in successfully encouraging young people to take maths.

The Chancellor’s £1.5 billion package for universal credit will do very little to address the disproportionate impact of previous Budgets and policies on BAME women. According to the Women’s Budget Group, BAME women will be £1,400 a year worse off. Will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor on behalf of these women?

It is worth reflecting on the fact that two thirds of the people who will benefit from the national living wage increase—it is increasing by 4.4% from next April—will be women. Indeed, because of the tax changes we are making, with the increase in the personal allowance from 2015-16 to 2017-18, 800,000 women will be taken out of tax altogether, which is something we should all welcome.

We know that black and minority ethnic women face multiple disadvantages in society, and good information is crucial for sound policy making. I listened to the Minister’s concerns about publishing such information on the impact of the Budget, but may I offer a solution? If the Government were to publish their own analysis of the impact of the Budget on gender and race, everybody would be able to see what the impacts are, and indeed Ministers would be able to make good policy decisions for all groups who are protected.

As I have set out, it is difficult to do that, as the IFS has said. The underlying point, which I think everyone recognises, is that it is very difficult to do the analysis because it relies on assumptions about how income is shared within households. In relation to the outcomes for BAME women, and BAME people more broadly, 3.8 million ethnic minority people are now in work, which is a rise of 1.7 million since 2005. It is also worth telling the House that we are making a particular push on apprenticeships by ensuring that we see diversity among those who are taking them, and a growing number of BAME young people are doing so.

Supporting Women back into Work

3. What steps the Government are taking to support women back into work when they have had time out of the workplace to look after children or other relatives. (902526)

The 2017 spring Budget made £5 million available for returners in both the public sector and the private sector. We have already announced a number of programmes to help people return to work, including ones for allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers.

Order. That is all very interesting, but I thought the Minister was grouping this question with the one from the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood).

My apologies, Mr Speaker. I will, with your permission, group this question with question 4.

4. What steps the Government are taking to support women back into work when they have had time out of the workplace to look after children or other relatives. (902527)

The gender pay gap can be explained in part by professional and other women returning to the workplace in lesser roles than the ones they left to take time off to raise families or look after loved ones. Will my right hon. Friend highlight what the Government are doing to address that particular shortfall?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising what is actually a very important point. It should be remembered that 89% of people who take time off work for caring responsibilities are women. Closing the gender pay gap is extremely important. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that women earn 2% less on average for every year spent out of paid work, and the figure is even higher for highly paid women. We are talking to employers, evaluating all the programmes and gathering evidence of what works, and we hope to publish guidance on best practice for small and medium-sized employers next spring.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what measures the Government are taking to help employers to support women who have taken career breaks to care for children or other relatives?

The £5 million available for returns programmes will also be aimed at employers. We must understand that a complex set of reasons put people off returning to work, and the evidence that will be gathered will be important in ensuring that the best practice guidance published in spring gives a clear direction to employers, to ensure that they can harness the skills of those who take time off work.

Will the Minister explain what steps are being taken to ensure that older workers, including women born in the 1950s, who wish to return to work are given access to adequate training programmes in their local communities?

The hon. Lady makes an important point—I declare an interest as I consider myself an older worker. She is right to say that people choose to return to work at various times, and we must ensure that facilities and retraining schemes are available. We must also dig deeper to find out what the obstacles are. Confidence building with women is a significant issue when they have taken time off, and the longer that someone is out of the workplace, the more difficult that becomes.

According to the Government’s own data, 54,000 women are discriminated against and forced out of work when they are pregnant. The £5 million announced for return to work schemes is, of course, enormously welcome, but will the Minister set out in more detail how many women will benefit from the scheme? What specific projects—she mentioned the civil service—will be introduced to try to get more women back into work after having a child?

It is not just the civil service; we are looking at allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers. The social work programmes are in London, the west midlands, and the east of England. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: encouraging women to get back into the workplace is critical, and employers should be aware that there are very clear laws about what they can and cannot do when their employees take time off work for maternity leave.

As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said, despite some of the best laws in the world, women in this country who are in work face more discrimination when they are pregnant than they did 10 years ago, and that can also stop them getting back into work. Will the Government consider making it clearer that employment tribunals have discretion in allowing individuals to bring discrimination cases in special circumstances outside the general three-month limit? Surely pregnancy must be a very special circumstance indeed.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—pregnancy is a very special circumstance, and women and employers are not always aware of their legal obligations. Some of the work that we are doing on gender pay gap reporting will be an important part of that, because it will highlight some of those issues and enable us to dig deeper into the reasons behind that pay gap. I have no doubt that some of it will be due to discrimination against women in the workplace.

Further to the response that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), will she say what concrete action the Government are taking to address the fact that 54,000 women are forced out of work in this country every year due to maternity discrimination? Women want action, not just warm words.

I point out to the hon. Lady that it is illegal and unlawful to discriminate in such a way, and employers are breaking the law in doing it. As constituency MPs, we can highlight to the women we meet or who come to our surgeries—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that she wants action from the Government, but action has been taken—it is against the law.

Women’s Refuges

Refuges provide vital support for victims of domestic abuse. Since 2014 we have invested a total of £33.5 million in services to support victims of domestic abuse, including supporting our refuges.

The Minister will recognise that refuges are places of safety for women and children in flight from domestic violence and that in extreme cases they are literally life-saving, but does he understand the concern of organisations such as Women’s Aid that the changes to supported housing can have the effect of putting refuges under real pressure? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure we get the answer right, so we have a national network of refuges?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Knowing his experience with the police force, he will understand that this is an extremely complicated area. The Government are absolutely determined to get this right, because it is of vital importance that we do so. There is no question but that refuges provide a life-saving role in our community and that is why we are currently consulting on the best way to ensure their future funding is right to make sure they are supported as permanent parts of our community.

Further to my hon. Friend’s question, will the Minister agree to meet Women’s Aid and other relevant organisations to ensure that we properly discuss their concerns about the new funding model for refuges?

I reassure the hon. Lady that those discussions are already taking place. Ministers in my Department have already met Women’s Aid. I know that it, and other organisations, will be playing an active part in the consultation on the future of funding for women’s refuges. That consultation closes on 23 January and I encourage all organisations, and Members, to take part.

Newark Women’s Aid is without question one of the most inspiring organisations I have visited in my constituency. Its finances, however, are fragile. When considering future financial settlements for women’s refuges, will the Minister ensure that the settlements are as long as possible—three or five years in length—to ensure the brave and brilliant people who run refuges have the security they need to continue?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I encourage him and Newark Women’s Aid to take part in the consultation. On the long-term funding of women’s refuges, it is fair to say that nothing is off the table. The Government have not ruled out a national funding scheme, if our consultation shows that that is correct.

The Government’s recently announced proposed reforms of supported housing suggest that entitlement to housing benefit when women enter a refuge will be paid directly to local authorities. This is effectively pulling the plug on secure funding and jeopardising the security of life-saving refuge organisations. Given the comments the Minister has made this morning, and the assurances that he will work with the refuges, will he meet me and refuge organisations to discuss their grave concerns about the sustainability of this model?

Representing the Department for Communities and Local Government, I find quite offensive the idea that giving funding direct to local authorities to support women in crisis in their community is in some way pulling the plug on them. We have been absolutely clear that we will continue to review the funding for care and support, and whether housing costs should be paid direct as grants to local authorities or not. We continue to explore all the options, including a national model for refuge provision.

Balancing Work with Childcare Responsibilities

6. What steps the Government is taking to help (a) women and (b) men balance work with childcare responsibilities. (902529)

Childcare is often the biggest challenge for working families. The Government are committed to supporting men and women to balance work and care obligations. That is why we have doubled the childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds in England from 15 to 30 hours, and introduced tax-free childcare, which is available in Ulster. The right to request flexible working also enables parents to arrange care in a way that works for them.

Will the Minister outline how the Government intend to practically, and even financially, support small and medium-sized businesses, who incidentally are collectively the largest employers in Northern Ireland, to fulfil their obligation to consider and implement, where practical, flexible working times for parents?

Flexible working is good for the employer as well as the employee, helping morale, motivation and productivity. It is vital in these times that businesses retain and recruit key staff. Progressive companies understand this and how flexible working is an essential element in securing success. We are working with employer groups and others on how best to promote genuine two-way flexible working.

Fathers also have a critical role to play in childcare, but the Women and Equalities Committee heard recently from some fathers who suggested that the take-up of paternity leave was very low. What more can the Minister to do to encourage fathers to play an active role in early childcare?

It is not necessarily just a question of what the Government can do; a great deal more cultural change is needed as well. Shared parental leave was introduced in April 2015, but we would like the take-up to increase.

Caste as a Protected Characteristic

9. When she plans to respond to the Government’s consultation on caste as a protected characteristic in equality legislation. (902533)

The public consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination closed on 18 September. We received more than 13,000 responses, which are currently being analysed, and we will respond in due course.

Given the thousands of responses from British Hindus saying that having caste as a protected characteristic in equality law is unnecessary and divisive, will my right hon. Friend take action to remove that provision—which was introduced by the Labour party—from the legislative book?

We appreciate that caste is an extremely sensitive and emotive subject which is important to many people, but there is clearly no unanimous view among consultation respondents about how best to provide the necessary legal protection against caste discrimination. We are therefore considering the responses very carefully, and will be taking account of all the relevant points raised when deciding how to proceed.

Does the Minister recognise that leaving people to rely only on case law would not be sufficient, because they would be uncertain whether their cases would necessarily accord with decisions in previous cases, and does he agree that legislation is necessary for that reason?

The hon. Lady has expressed an opinion, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). As I have said, we are looking at 13,000 opinions. We completely oppose any form of discrimination related to a person’s caste, but the way in which we ensure that that does not happen must be proportionate. We will respond to the consultation in due course.

People with Disabilities: Changing Facilities

10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that changing facilities are available in toilets for people with disabilities. (902534)

The Government recognise that the provision of changing facilities is an important issue for people whose needs are not met by standard public lavatories. We have worked with Mencap and the Changing Places campaign to improve provision. In particular, we have provided funds for a searchable application to enable people to find their nearest Changing Places lavatories.

I thank Changing Places for the work that it has done to improve facilities throughout the country, and I thank local campaigners for approaching me. They are right to campaign for more suitable facilities in areas of leisure such as football stadiums where people can be changed with dignity and in safety. Will the Minister outline further Government support?

Owing to the campaigning of my hon. Friend and other organisations, since 2007 the number of Changing Places lavatories has increased from 140 to more than 1,000, but there are still not enough. I remind those in charge of all public buildings, and all buildings in which services are provided, that they have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that changing places can be installed.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I hear repeated distressing stories about disabled children being changed on toilet floors owing to lack of provision. That is unacceptable, and also degrading, in today’s society. Will the Government consider putting Changing Places toilets on a statutory footing?

Under the Equality Act, there is already a requirement to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that changing places are provided. Other alterations would have to be made in building regulations. We are currently undertaking a building regulations review, and I do not wish to prejudge its conclusions, but let me highlight the extent of the problem. Only nine train stations out of a total of 2,500, only 12 motorway service stations out of nearly 100 and only 50 out of nearly 500 shopping centres have changing places. That is simply not good enough.

Topical Questions

Over the past month, Mr Speaker, we were both, along with many colleagues from across the House, able to attend the event recognising the Patchwork Foundation’s excellent work engaging under-represented groups in politics. I was also lucky enough to be able to join the UK Youth Parliament in Parliament a few Fridays ago, when it debated important equalities issues such as LGBT rights and the need for a more diverse Parliament over the coming years.

Increasing diversity in Parliament is critical. The Government also remain committed to increasing equality in the workplace and it is good news that the new gender pay gap reporting released last month shows that the full-time gender pay gap is now the lowest it has ever been. Of course, this week marks the launch of our latest programme for returners in the public sector, for those wishing to rejoin the civil service. My Department is leading the way by offering returner places within the Government Equalities Office.

What steps is the Minister planning to take to celebrate the centenary of women being able to vote?

We have announced a £5 million fund that will do three things. First, it will help us fund the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Secondly, there will be grassroots funding and we are alerting community organisations around the country so that they can do their own local projects. Thirdly, as we announced in the Budget yesterday, seven centenary cities and towns in England with a strong suffrage history will receive funding to make sure that the places where the push for women’s votes was strongest can play their role in helping us remember such an important milestone.

Parliament itself is very much engaged with these matters, of course, and that will take the form of a huge exhibition in the course of 2018, which I am sure all colleagues will wish to visit and to encourage others to visit.

Yesterday’s Budget proved that austerity is a failed economic project and women have paid the price. Since 2010, 86% of net savings to the Treasury have come from women. Last year, the Treasury refused to send a Minister to the Women and Equalities Committee to answer questions about the impact of the Government’s budget plans and fiscal statements on women. The intersectionality of the cuts takes into account all the benefits to women, and they are still 10 or 12 times worse off. If the Minister disagrees, does she not think that it is about time for a comprehensive equality impact assessment to be conducted by the Government and for the Treasury to be held to account on the impact of their policies on women and diverse communities?

In the fact-free environment in which the Opposition live, it is easy to ignore what respected commentators such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies say about that analysis. It has said that

“what is possible falls a long way short of a full gender impact assessment.”

The IFS makes that point because the analysis of the Budget considers tax and welfare but does not and cannot take into account the impact of the national living wage, the childcare policies this Government have introduced, the work we have done on the gender pay gap, or the legal changes we have made on shared parental leave and flexible working. It gives a very narrow picture of how much the Government are doing to support women. The other point that has been missed is that there are now more women in work than ever before. If we are really interested in women’s economic empowerment, surely that is the main statistic we should focus on.

I call David Morris—he is not here. Where is the fellow? An extraordinary business; he is no doubt in Morecambe. What a pity. Nevertheless, Mr Cleverly is here, so let’s hear him.

T3. Does my right hon. Friend share my encouragement that more than 100,000 people took part in the Government’s LGBT survey? What further steps is she taking to ensure greater LGBT equality in British society? (902545)

The survey received an unprecedented response, making it one of the largest LGBT surveys in the world. We will analyse those results closely and set out further steps to promote LGBT equality next year. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are taking other action, including running a large anti-homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying programme in our schools.

Recent research by the Fawcett Society showed that it would take 100 years to close the gender pay gap at the current rate of change, and a report by the Women and Equalities Committee has suggested that we will achieve true economic equality only if we move to make all jobs flexible by default and introduce non-transferable paid paternity leave. What steps will the Government take to enact those recommendations?

This is an important topic. Paying men and women unequally for the same work has been unlawful for nearly 50 years, and I spoke directly with Frances O’Grady only yesterday about the need for us to work collectively to tackle this. The Department for Education also held a flexible working summit with the teaching profession last month. I agree that improving flexible working is part of how we can ensure that women are better able to get back into the workplace. In relation to equal pay, that is a legal requirement and gender pay gap transparency is part of how we can continue to shine a light on this range of issues.

T4. Many women’s rights campaigners have raised concerns about women’s safety in relation to the use of women’s facilities, ranging from toilets right through to women’s prisons, where people who were born men use them simply on the basis of self-certifying that they are now women. What response will the Secretary of State give to those women’s rights campaigners who are concerned about women’s safety? (902546)

The Equality Act 2010 allows organisations to provide single-sex services and we have no intention of changing the safeguards that are already in place to protect vulnerable women by providing those services. The consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will be a wide and open consultation, and we want to hear views from all stakeholders, including women’s groups and refuges.

Order. I am afraid that we are out of time, and there is heavy pressure on business today, but I am going to make an exception. The voice of Kettering must be heard, and I call Mr Philip Hollobone.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, is a leading disability rights campaigner and was a superb nominee for the post of Disability Commissioner. After his nomination was made known to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, however, the post was abolished. Has the Government Equalities Office informed the Prime Minister’s office of this disgraceful development, and if so, when?

The roles and responsibilities given to board members of the Equality and Human Rights Commission are matters for the commission itself, and the Government have no power to reinstate the EHRC’s Disability Commissioner role.

Far be it from me to deny the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee of the House the final question of this session. I call Mrs Maria Miller.

Parliament and the Leader of the House are tackling the difficult issue of sexual harassment in this place, and that is to be applauded, but 50% of women in the workplace in general suffer sexual harassment. What are the Government going to do to ensure that the strong laws set out in the Equality Act 2010 and beyond are actually abided by, by businesses in this country?

The debate that we have been having in this place is part of how we raise these issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. We need to be clear that it is illegal and unacceptable, and that it needs to be stamped out wherever we see it. There is legal protection, but we are increasingly understanding that attitudes fundamentally need to change. Also, the Department for Education can play a clear role in ensuring that young people at school get the kind of education that they need to understand that these attitudes are unacceptable, and that they get that from an early age.