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Women and Equalities

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 11 January 2018

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—


1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903232)

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903234)

12. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903245)

It is good news that women now account for over half of all apprentices. We continue to implement apprenticeship reforms to improve the quality of apprenticeships for all, and we are using the employer apprenticeship diversity champions network to champion gender representation in industries where greater participation by women is still needed.

I thank the Minister for her response. The National College for Nuclear opens in my neighbouring constituency on 9 February. This will add to an already fantastic asset of training facilities with world-class equipment. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people with disabilities are able to access these training courses and apprenticeships?

It is great news that the National College for Nuclear is opening shortly, enabling young people and others in the area to access the sort of education and skills that they need for the future. We want to ensure that apprenticeship opportunities are open to all people, and of course that includes people with disabilities. We provide additional funding to employers and training providers working with apprentices with disabilities, to support their learning and enable adjustments to the workplace. As well as engaging employers through the apprenticeship diversity champions network, we are working to ensure that Disability Confident badging is clear for vacancies on the Find an Apprenticeship website, including those for engineering roles.

The further education college and the university in Chichester offer a wide range of courses giving young people in my constituency access to high-quality apprenticeships. However, I am concerned that only 21% of places for degree-level apprenticeships in digital, tech and management are filled by women. That is the same as it was 30 years ago when I did that apprenticeship. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage more women and girls to take up apprenticeships as a pathway to a successful career?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is not enough that more than 50% of apprenticeships are being taken up by women. We want to ensure that there is greater diversity, particularly in areas where lower numbers of women are participating than we would like. Our careers strategy sets out a long-term plan to build a world-class careers system to help young people and adults to choose the career that is right for them, and promotes gender equality by increasing young people’s contact with employers, demonstrating different jobs and career paths to raise aspirations. In addition, a new legal requirement means that schools must give providers the chance to talk to pupils about technical qualifications and apprenticeships. In that way, we hope to raise awareness of the additional routes that are available to young people.

I am delighted that 580 people started apprenticeships in Southend last year. Will my right hon. Friend please advise me on what more she can do to incentivise local employers to offer even more apprenticeships to women in Southend?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a high level of apprenticeship starts in his constituency, but he also makes the point that we need to ensure that women are starting apprenticeships in a variety of areas, and particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects, where they are underrepresented at the moment, with only about 8% of participants being women. We are focusing additional efforts on working with employers through the apprenticeship diversity network to ensure that they show young people the opportunities available in other areas, particularly in the STEM area.

In July last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is in his place, made insulting comments, following Government pension changes, about how women born in the 1950s should take up apprenticeships to try to address some of the financial burdens that they face. Will the new Minister set out how many women born in the 1950s and affected by the Government pension changes have taken up apprenticeships? It is frankly nothing more than an insult to all the women who worked for all those years and whose pensions have been delayed by six years.

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman. This Government wholly respect women in their 50s—I have an interest to declare in that particular area—and we will always ensure that apprenticeships are available to people of all ages. Between August 2016 and April 2017, the number of apprenticeship starts was over 53,000 for people aged 45 to 59 and over 3,400 for people aged 60 and over. That represents an increase on the previous year, and we hope to continue that increase.

As in the rest of the United Kingdom, barriers to access are a problem for women in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister outline what engagement she and her officials have undertaken with Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland to identify best practice and to try to find workable solutions to eliminate such barriers?

We have regular meetings with Ministers from Northern Ireland, and we will always ensure that we share information and best practice where we can, so that women and other people who want to participate in apprenticeships, such as people with disabilities, can access the additional opportunities that we are determined to provide.

Is the Minister aware of the latest report from the Young Women’s Trust? It shows that two in five apprentices spend more money in completing their apprenticeship than they earn and that women face an 8% gender pay gap. Is the Minister prepared to act on the trust’s recommendations to increase the number of women accessing high-quality apprenticeships?

It is essential that we give women all the opportunities that we can to access the high-quality apprenticeships to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I have not seen that report, but I will certainly take a look and come back to him.

Women’s Refuges

The Government are fully committed to protecting victims of domestic abuse and to improving sustainability of funding for refuges. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government—has launched a £20 million domestic abuse accommodation fund, which is supporting 76 projects, creating 2,200 new bed spaces over the next two years and supporting more than 19,000 women. Some of that money is coming to Manchester.

A constituent described to me a loved one’s search for a refuge to protect her from domestic violence as hell on earth. Thankfully, they eventually found a space, but 60% of referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17. The proposed new funding model risks creating a postcode lottery, so how will the Minister ensure that the refuge provision in her constituency is no different from in mine?

May I, with respect, correct the hon. Gentleman? It is precisely because we want to ensure that areas across the country share the same best practice that the Ministry of Housing is consulting on how to fund refuges sustainably. The point of the new housing model is to try to ensure that victims, who are in vulnerable situations when they go to refuges after fleeing violence, do not have to fill in housing benefit forms while in the middle of a crisis.

I declare an interest as my wife volunteers at a refuge. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that Ministers have met organisations such as Women’s Aid to ensure that their views on the new funding model are properly listened to and considered?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and thank his wife and everyone who works in domestic abuse refuges. We are of course meeting Women’s Aid and other organisations. Along with other colleagues, I am determined to ensure that the future of refuges is funded sustainably, and I urge anyone with an interest in this area to respond to the consultation.

The proposed changes to housing benefit will leave refuges in a vulnerable position, and the already underfunded specialist refuges will be most affected. If the Government are serious about protecting women victims of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, forced marriage and trafficking, they have to put more money into specialist services. What commitment will they make to looking seriously at increasing funding for specialist refuges?

We have the £20 million domestic abuse fund, which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is overlooking. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also consulting on the draft domestic abuse Bill this year. I hope that consultation will start soon, and the Government would welcome responses from people who are interested. I make it clear that we are absolutely committed to funding refuges properly, and I am pleased that we have had a 10% rise in bed spaces since 2010.

Women in the Scottish Economy

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Sawers report on Womenomics. (903235)

The Sawers report highlights many of the issues women face in the workplace. The gender pay gap in Scotland is at a near record low, but it must be eradicated completely. The Minister for Women and Equalities regularly meets Cabinet colleagues to discuss such important issues.

The Sawers report was intended to be the start of a road map for the engagement of women in Scotland’s economy and not just an end in itself. I suggest that the Minister would be well advised to meet Professor Sawers to discuss how her report can now be taken forward in government.

That is a very pleasant suggestion, and I look forward to meeting Professor Sawers in due course.

Year of Engineering

5. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls and women to get involved with the 2018 Year of Engineering. (903236)

The Year of Engineering is an opportunity to tackle historical gender stereotypes. Throughout 2018, the Year of Engineering campaign will highlight the variety and creativity of engineering to improve the understanding of what engineers do and of the enormous opportunities that a career in engineering offers both to young men and young women.

Engineering is a vital employment sector for residents of Mid Derbyshire, both in small and medium-sized enterprises and in larger companies like Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on which external partners in Derby have signed up to the Year of Engineering campaign?

My hon. Friend has almost answered the question for me. She is right that Rolls-Royce, Bombardier Transportation and Toyota have all pledged to support the Year of Engineering campaign through activities in schools, both nationwide and in the Derby area.

One of the biggest barriers to women and girls entering careers in engineering and physics is the perceptions and expectations of parents. What work is the Minister doing during the Year of Engineering to encourage parents to look at the career options?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We have been successful since 2010 because, in England, GCSE entries by girls in physics have risen from 50,600 in 2010 to 66,700 this year, and the number of girls entering A-level physics has risen from 5,800 in 2010 to 6,947 in 2017. Overall, the number of girls taking STEM A-levels has increased by 20% since 2010.

As well as ensuring that careers advice encourages more women into engineering, will my right hon. Friend look at financial incentives and at how the apprenticeship levy is working to incentivise companies to employ more women in engineering?

My right hon. Friend is quite right. We introduced the apprenticeship levy to boost the importance of apprenticeships. We delivered more than 2 million apprenticeship starts in the last Parliament and are committed to 3 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament, because this is a Government who are committed to high-quality skills in our economy. The apprenticeship programme is part and parcel of that ambition.

Budget Gender Impact Analysis

6. If the Government will commission an independent gender impact analysis of the autumn Budget 2017. (903237)

For all Budgets, Treasury Ministers very carefully assess the gender impact of the various measures under consideration. We do that as a statutory duty, but we also do it because it is our firm policy to do so. Of course, one of our centrepieces in the Budget was the 4.4% increase in the national living wage from this April, which will disproportionately benefit women.

Women still bear the brunt of the Government’s failed austerity agenda. What was the Minister’s assessment of the autumn Budget’s financial impact on women and those with protected characteristics?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government constantly carry out assessments. There are various assessments of the impacts of all fiscal events, but I point him not only to the national living wage increase, which disproportionately benefits women, but to the personal allowance increase that takes many hundreds of thousands of women out of tax altogether. Of course, by 2019-20 we will spend some £6 billion a year on childcare, a record level of expenditure.

I finally received a letter from the Government Equalities Office in regards to an equality impact assessment. If, as the Minister has just stated, the impact assessment was carried out, it would have shown that 86% of the Government cuts would have fallen on women. Why then did the Government continue with these damaging policies?

As I have pointed out, the Government have taken many, many measures—I have just listed some of them in the recent Budget—that specifically assist women on issues such as childcare, the personal tax allowance increases and the national living wage increase that will come in from this April. We will continue to rigorously assess all measures, as we do around all fiscal events, to ensure that women are treated fairly and are an absolute priority for this Government.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Tribunals

7. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the adequacy of the time limit for a woman to bring an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy and maternity discrimination. (903238)

Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is wholly unacceptable, but research the Government commissioned with the Equality and Human Rights Commission did not suggest the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal was a particular barrier to pregnant women and new mothers. However, the rules permit an extension to that time limit if needed, and of course we will consider further guidance on this if that would be helpful.

What steps are this Government taking to prevent further job losses after reports exposed the fact that on average 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination?

We have to make sure the message is clear to employers that this sort of discrimination is wholly unacceptable, and give new mothers and pregnant women the courage to put forward a claim if it is appropriate. But the message from the Government is clear: this is not acceptable.

In response to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the Government have already agreed to act on this issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on whether the president of the employment tribunal will be issuing guidance in this area on the extension powers she has already mentioned? My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has also agreed to start collecting data on applications for time extensions on maternity-related cases. Will the Minister undertake to update the House in future on the progress on that?

In late 2016, the Select Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, published a report on this. The recommendations were considered and the research we commissioned with the EHRC did not suggest that the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to the employment tribunal is a barrier. I will of course look into it and write to her.

I welcome the new Women and Equalities Minister to her place and pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for her dedication to the role. In January last year, the Women and Equalities Committee joined the Justice Committee in calling for an extension of the deadline from three to six months. In response, the Government said that they would keep the time limit for claims to be submitted under review, and we have heard a continuation of that narrative today. Since the statement, the Supreme Court ruled that the UK must abolish tribunal fees and repay those who had made their claim. Is now therefore not the time to make a full review of that system of delivery, remove the further barriers and make a serious commitment today to increasing that time limit to six months?

As I say, the Government continue to keep this under review. Following the Supreme Court judgment on employment tribunal fees, we stopped charging fees immediately and arrangements are being put in place by the Ministry of Justice to refund the fees to those who have paid in the past. As I say, this point on discrimination against new mothers and pregnant women is very much being kept under review.

Suffrage Centenary Fund

8. What recent discussions she has had with her counterpart in the Scottish Government on plans for the suffrage centenary fund. (903239)

This year marks a milestone in our democracy; we will celebrate the achievements of outstanding women who have fought for gender equality. The Scottish Government are receiving centenary funding through the application of the Barnett formula. The Government Equalities Office has monthly meetings with the devolved Administrations, who are responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations.

I commend the Government on the establishment of the suffrage centenary fund to ensure that this important milestone is marked. Last year, I wrote to the Scottish Government Minister responsible, but I have received no response. Does the Minister share my belief that the devolved Administrations should spend the funds allocated to them to ensure that the centenary is properly celebrated in all parts of the United Kingdom?

Women throughout the UK went to the ballot boxes for the first time in 1918, and all four nations contributed to that landmark change. The Scottish Government are like the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—they are all responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations. I understand that the Scottish Government will announce their plans shortly, but I cannot see why they would not want to mark such a great celebration in an important way.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, as part of the celebrations, a fitting tribute to the great Winnie Ewing, who was elected 50 years ago last year, would be a portrait in the House of Commons?

Well, Mr Speaker, I am sure that you listened carefully to that question, as I understand that that is a matter for the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.

The Works of Art Committee is a very important Committee. I have a feeling that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) is going to beetle her way towards it and pitch in person. I am sure that the Committee looks forward to that prospect with eager anticipation.

Parental Leave

9. What steps her Department is taking to promote the right to a balanced share of statutory pay for mothers and fathers taking parental leave. (903242)

Perhaps I should begin by declaring an interest: Mrs Griffiths and I are expecting our first child in April. As the Minister responsible, I will be taking my full paternity leave.

Shared parental leave and pay was developed by the coalition Government. It enables working couples to share childcare responsibility in the first year. It is a radical step forward in the challenging of cultural expectations about the roles of men and women and the idea that the mother is always the primary carer. The Government understand the pressures on working families. We are taking steps to improve the take-up of the scheme, about which I shall say more in due course.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and agree that the introduction of shared parental leave and pay was a radical step that is making a difference, but is he aware that fathers get only the mother’s basic maternity pay, which is not enhanced in any way, so uptake of the scheme has been less than 1%? Will he look into this matter, particularly in the light of the court ruling in Snell v. Network Rail, and ensure that dads get a better deal?

There would be significant costs to the taxpayer and business were we to increase the rates of parental pay. We are not ruling that out, but it is important that we understand the facts before we change any policy. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased that the Government have done a huge amount to support fathers and mothers in relation to parental leave. We have cut income tax for more than 13 million women, introduced tax-free childcare and extended free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week, and we are funding people to return to work after a time out. We are a Government who understand the pressures on working families and we are working to help them in their time of need.

Domestic Abuse

10. What steps her Department is taking to support other Government Departments better to assist victims of domestic abuse. (903243)

The Home Office co-ordinates the cross-Government approach to tackling domestic abuse through our violence against women and girls strategy, which has committed increased funding of £100 million to support victims.

The Scottish Government are providing essential training to around 14,000 police officers to help them to spot coercive control. What discussions has the Minister had with herself, in her role as Home Secretary, about the Home Office providing similar training for the police in England and Wales?

I do not know whether the Minister is going to admit to talking to herself, but I think we are about to discover.

I shall draw a veil over that particular suggestion, but as the hon. Gentleman is aware we have introduced a new offence of coercive or controlling behaviour, which is an important part of our efforts to make sure that we support women and that we address additional forms of abuse that take place in that way. We have also rolled out domestic violence protection orders. Most importantly, this year we will introduce a domestic abuse Bill to do everything we can to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

Topical Questions

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.