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Topical Questions

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 11 January 2018

This year marks the centenary of the first British women getting the vote. We should not forget what it took to achieve that. Hunger-striking suffragettes were brutally force-fed with tubes—a process so painful that it could cause lifelong injuries and even make the prison wardens cry in horror. Those who marched in favour of women’s rights were pelted with rotting vegetables, rocks, and even dead rats. Suffragette Emily Davison was trampled to death by the King’s horse when she walked on to the track to protest. It is only right that we honour the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices of those remarkable women, as well as the landmark change that they brought about. The Government will be making sure that we provide the necessary funds and support to do exactly that.

In the 21st century, surely women deserve total equality. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that there is not a pay gap in the civil service in light of the fact that Carrie Gracie recently resigned as China editor at the BBC, citing pay issues there?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important element. It is absolutely essential that we all ensure that the Equal Pay Act 1970 is enforced. As much as I admire the BBC and enjoy listening to and watching its programmes, it clearly has a very serious question to answer here, which I certainly hope that it will address. On the gender pay gap, we are committed to ensuring that we address that as well, and, of course, we have new disclosure arrangements.

I, too, welcome the additional burden put on the Minister in her new role, and thank the former Minister for her work. On 26 August 2016, the Prime Minister began her PR exercise on the race disparity audit. On 10 October 2017, the Government released the data. This week, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for governance and inclusive leadership, I launched the Investing in Ethnicity and Race in the Workplace maturity matrix, a free resource for businesses. Will the Minister explain what steps the Government have taken to act on the findings of the race disparity audit?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome and I very much look forward to working with her in this House. I have not yet seen her report, but no doubt, after these questions, she will be kind enough to give me a copy of it. The publication of the race disparity audit shows how committed this Government are to ensuring that, where we find race disparity, we will address it. Each Department is looking at the specific recommendations and will come forward with how they will address them.

T4. As the Government rightly push forward legislation to deliver greater use of electric vehicles, Guide Dogs UK has expressed concerns from an equality perspective about possible safety implications for blind and partially sighted pedestrians of greater use of these very quiet vehicles. Will the Minister please raise that concern with the Secretary of State for Transport? (903252)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am aware that it is a concern among people who are disabled, particularly among blind people. I just point out that autonomous vehicles will not necessarily be so quiet: the autonomous nature of them means that they will not be driven by an individual, and the noise level will depend on whether they are petrol, diesel or electric, but certainly I have been having conversations with officials at the Department of Transport, and we will make sure that they are aware of that very serious concern.

T2. Harriet Shaw Weaver from Frodsham in my constituency was among the many suffragettes who helped women secure the right to vote a century ago. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that, in this centenary year, they address the lack of women’s representation in Parliament? (903249)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. It is absolutely critical that we celebrate it in this centenary year. I hope that he will speak to the activists in his constituency and consider applying for some support to raise the profile of the historical suffragette in his area. We are absolutely committed as a Government to ensuring that we have high representation not only in Parliament, but in Government. I am delighted to say that women make up 30% of the people attending Cabinet.

First, let me congratulate the Home Secretary on her expanded role. I know that she will do a brilliant job. She will know that young people, parents and teachers think that it is vital in a modern internet world to see sex and relationships education updated. Can she confirm that the Government will push ahead with updating the guidance, which is now so out of date, and that she will meet me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) to make sure that we can have cross-party support for the work that is being undertaken?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the enormous good work that she did in this role. I will try my best to keep up the momentum that she provided. One of the fantastic things that she did was lead on making sure that sex and relationships education will be provided in all schools. I will be delighted to work with her to ensure that that is the case, and also across the House to ensure that the outcome that we get is one that the whole House can support, as I know that everybody believes in its importance.

T3. The requirement for all bus drivers to undertake disability equality training has been standard across the EU since 2013, and the UK’s five-year opt-out ends on 1 March. The Scottish Government have produced their accessible travel framework. Will the Minister tell us whether standardised training will be in place within the next six weeks across England so that the UK meets its obligation and disabled passengers can really access public transport? (903250)

I am delighted to answer the hon. Lady’s question. I will certainly ensure that the Minister for Disabled People and the Transport Secretary have an address for that particular point and will write to the hon. Lady.

There is a growing concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements in connection with employment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the use of non-disclosure agreements to conceal wrongdoing of any kind, and to encourage legal regulators to consider whether they are, in fact, ethical?

I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and her important Committee. She has raised an important matter; transparency is such an important part of achieving equality, so I look forward to working with her on this to establish the right way forward.

T5. I welcome the Minister to her new role. The BBC claims that 14.5% of its staff are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. But others, including Lenny Henry, have claimed that if we look at the staff who actually make the BBC’s programmes, that figure falls to just 1.5%. Is the Minister concerned that there is a major problem with BAME representation at the BBC, and what discussions has she had with the BBC about what it is doing about it? (903253)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, as I had not seen those particular figures. They draw attention to the fact that the overall number suggesting that there is equality sometimes hides the fact that there is nowhere near equality in the specialist areas—often the higher paid areas. I take very seriously the point she has raised, about which there are additional questions for the BBC to answer.

Last year, the Government advertised for a disability rights commissioner. Lord Shinkwin applied for the post, was appointed to the post and was promptly told that the post had been abolished at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions reverse the disgraceful decision to abolish the post of disability rights commissioner and restore Lord Shinkwin to his rightful position in that post?

The disability commissioner role was an operational matter for the EHRC itself. The Secretary of State has no powers to appoint or reinstate a disability commissioner.

T6. Over the weekend, I was sent a screenshot from a Facebook page directed at the female chief executive officer of Wigan Council that read,“horrible bitch should hang wish i held the rope”.Unfortunately, this was not deemed to violate Facebook’s standards. This is not an isolated case. There is a stream of incessant posts aimed at bullying and intimidating female representatives of the borough. What further action will the Government take to ensure that women in public office feel safe? (903254)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this, as it is such an important issue and one that I think all of us in this House are having to deal with. The sheer nastiness of comments online is something that we all disparage. We are actively engaging with the communications service providers on what they can do to take such comments down. I respectfully point out that the recent publication by Lord Bew about conduct in public life showed that it is particularly Conservatives MPs who are on the receiving end. I urge Opposition Members to work with their party to ensure a reduction of nasty Momentum activists.

It is evident that some of the largest graduate employers in the country are paying men and women different rates when they start in the workplace, and we know that the gender pay gap only widens as women progress through the workplace and reach the exalted ages of myself and some others. What more can the Government do to tackle this insidious issue?

We are very serious about tackling the gender pay gap. From April this year, any employer with more than 250 employees will need to publish that pay gap. It is through transparency that we will get real change.

Will the Government carry out an economic impact assessment on the value of investing in a comprehensive childcare provision across the country, in particular looking at the impact on women and gender equality?

As I said earlier, we already carry out a wide variety of different impact assessments, including in the kind of area to which the hon. Lady alludes. If she would like to write to me with further details of the exact aspects she is interested in, I would be very happy to consider them.