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Women and Equalities

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women’s Vote Centenary Fund

1. How much of the centenary fund to celebrate women having the right to vote has been spent; and how much of that funding has been distributed to women's organisations. (903874)

2. How much of the centenary fund to celebrate women having the right to vote has been spent; and how much of that funding has been distributed to women’s organisations. (903875)

The centenary fund has paid out about £2.5 million so far; £1.2 million was given to Bolton, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, London, Manchester and Nottingham, which are working with women’s organisations to deliver their suffrage centenary programmes. We are also funding the first ever statue of a women in Parliament Square—it will be of Millicent Fawcett.

I thank the Minister for her answer. She will know that the Sheffield Female Political Association, founded in February 1851, was the first women’s suffrage organisation in the UK. Will she therefore join me in supporting the bid prepared by women across the voluntary, arts and education sectors to the fund? Will she wish them well in their ambition to use the centenary to encourage opportunities for civic engagement by women who feel disengaged and disempowered?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am delighted to congratulate him and to welcome the women of Sheffield in their bid to the centenary fund. I hope it will do exactly as he says: encourage more women to engage in political life in general.

Will the Minister confirm what level of support the Government or their contracted company are providing to smaller women’s groups to encourage them to take up this funding?

Yes, I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have a website that will set all that out. If he wants to go on it himself, it is womensvotecentenaryfund.co.uk . The bidding process is set out there. Two types of grants are available. The larger one is up to £125,000 and the smaller one starts at £2,000. I hope that will give him and his constituents the information they need to apply for the grants.

Are we not in danger of rather missing the point that the best way to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage is to get more women to register and actually to vote when elections turn up?

My hon. Friend is right, in that it is imperative that more women participate in political life, both by voting and by participating in this place. I think we can do both things: we can celebrate the centenary and, in our celebrations, make that point repeatedly so that we get more women involved.

Exiting the EU: Equalities Policy

3. What assessment she has made of the effect on the Government’s policies on equality of the UK leaving the EU. (903876)

The UK Government’s record on equalities is one of the best in the world, and leaving the EU will not change that. The equality Acts and equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland provide the cornerstone of equalities protections in the UK and in some places go much further than EU requirements, for example, in our world-leading approach to gender pay gap reporting. We do not need to be part of the EU to sustain our record in this area.

A recent study published in Social Policy and Society has found that the UK’s voting record in the EU has historically placed business interests over women’s rights. What steps are this Government taking to ensure that post-Brexit Britain will not place business interests above ensuring equality?

This Government have a proud record of protecting and enhancing women’s rights, and that record of action predates our membership of the EU, as seen, for example, in the Equal Pay Act 1970. The EU’s own gender equality index places us sixth out of 28, and our gender pay gap reporting requirements and our public sector equality duty are world-leading initiatives that go beyond EU law in many ways.

As on employment rights, the UK has a been right at the forefront of advancing equality across the world. Will the Minister confirm that that simply is not going to change?

Yes, we have a proud record, history and tradition in the UK of supporting workers, protecting civil liberties and championing human rights. Leaving the EU will in no way affect that historical tradition, of which we can all be proud.

Workplace Sexual Harassment

4. If the Government will bring forward legislative proposals to amend section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 to protect employees from sexual harassment by third parties in the workplace. (903877)

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection from harassment for employees, whether committed by their employer, co-workers or a third party. The coalition Government repealed the third party harassment provisions in section 40 of the Equality Act because they were unnecessary and overcomplicated. Employers have a legal obligation to protect their workers, and may be liable if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of workers by third parties.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Unite’s campaign “Not on the menu” in the hospitality sector, and its research with cabin crew showing that the majority experience sexual harassment, demonstrate emphatically why section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 is vital. Will the Minister commit to implementing it, but with intervention after one episode not three, and focus on a zero-tolerance approach to any form of sexual harassment in the workplace?

I am most concerned to hear about those incidents of harassment, and the hon. Lady should be reassured that they are covered already by the Equality Act. The reason those provisions in section 40 were repealed was that, as she has identified, they required not one but three occasions of harassment, and we know that, in the three years those provisions were in place, they were used only once. We have tried to improve the law, and I would encourage her to encourage people to use it.

It is really encouraging to hear my hon. Friend’s response, but does she not agree that it is not just about getting the law right? We have to get the remedies within the law right. We have to encourage anonymised reporting in the workplace. We must also make sure that the unethical use of non-disclosure agreements does not work to stop people bringing forward claims of sexual harassment in the first place.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. With her expertise on the Women and Equalities Committee, she knows only too well the challenge we have in advertising the rights that people have in the workplace. I am particularly concerned with non-disclosure agreements. We know that they can be used for lawful reasons—for example, to protect client confidentiality—but they cannot be used to shield employers from claims of harassment or discrimination, and any work that her Committee can do to help the Government in advertising that, I would very much welcome.

I know from my many battles in the coalition Government—some successful, some not—that the Conservatives’ obsession with deregulation often gets in the way of protecting vulnerable workers. It is that obsession, I say to the Minister, that is the real reason why the provisions in the Equality Act were repealed—I know because I was in the discussions at the time. Surely, in the light of the Presidents Club and all the other evidence that is now in the public domain, it is time to look again at the issue and, by all means, to improve on the original provisions, as suggested by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I very much pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she did as a Minister and that she continues to do now in the House. We of course keep this matter under review, but on the point I made about the section 40 amendments, general protection exists under the Act. However, we will continue to look at the evidence, and we are very, very clear: discrimination and harassment in the workplace is simply not on and is against the law.

We have to be very clear about this. Because the Government repealed section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, there is now no statutory protection over third party harassment. If the Government are committed to protecting women and girls, will they show this by either reinstating section 40 or, at the very least, introducing stronger legislation to ensure protection against third party harassment?

I hesitate to correct the hon. Lady, but that is simply not true: there is a general protection against harassment in the workplace; it is in the 2010 statue—it is a general protection against harassment. Of course, if there are any instances that Members on both sides of the House have of particular types of harassment or discrimination, I and the Home Secretary will always be willing to listen. However, the Equality Act protects workers, the general protection is there and, what is more, it is better than the section 40 protections, because it does not require three occasions of harassment; it requires just one.

Period Poverty

No girl or woman should be held back because of her gender or her background. This is why the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has identified period poverty as a priority for the tampon tax fund, which, in 2018 and 2019, totals £15 million. We have encouraged bids to address this issue.

In Stockton South and across Teesside, residents led a “free period” campaign, which persuaded local authorities to provide free sanitary protection for women and girls living in poverty. Will the Minister meet me to work out how that might be replicated in other parts of the country?

I am delighted to hear that Stockton-on-Tees Council has started that innovative project, and, in fairness to our Scottish colleagues, the same is happening in Aberdeen as well. I look forward very much to hearing the results of that pilot, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss them.

12. I was pleased to hear that the student union in Lincoln sells sanitary products at cost before VAT. Will the Minister acknowledge that sanitary products are not a luxury, but a necessity? My question is: will she accelerate the timetable for removing the tampon tax—yes, or no? (903885)

I am also glad that our county university is leading the way on this, but the hon. Lady knows that we are constrained by our membership of the European Union.

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but I am afraid that that is the law. We have lowered the rate to the lowest possible level—5%—and, what is more, we are using that money specifically for funds that help women and girls. We are waiting for the moment that we leave the European Union. I know that my Treasury colleagues are looking at exactly that issue.

It is a stain on our society that there are young girls and women who are experiencing period poverty, and, frankly, it is tragic that our Government appear to have such ambivalence towards period poverty, although I welcome the latest announcement. Will the Minister agree to work with me on an innovative scheme, which is currently in its infancy, that I am running with a local supermarket to see how we can work towards the elimination of period poverty?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue, because it is important. We know that we do not have a substantial basis of evidence on period poverty, but we are trying to gather that evidence, particularly with schools. We do want to address the issue of the VAT charged on tampons and other sanitary products, and the moment that we leave the European Union we can do so. In the meantime, we are using the money raised by that low rate of VAT to help women and girls, particularly using those funds that deal with violence against women and girls. We have a general programme with 12 sub-themes, including period poverty. I very much hope that that money will be of good use.

Last week, the Minister asked us to remember the suffragettes chained to the grilles. I ask the Minister today to remember those women chained to the house because of period poverty, those women chained to poor housing because of universal credit, and those women chained to an abusive partner because of the closure of refuges. Will the Minister work with me to develop and implement policies to help tackle those issues?

The Government are led, if I may say, by a female Prime Minister—I just mention that as a small detail because Labour members have never managed to entrust the leadership of their party to a woman. We are proud of our record of helping women, which is precisely why we are bringing forward a ground-breaking piece of legislation this year to tackle domestic abuse, which will help both the victims of domestic abuse and their children. It is one measure in a long programme that we are carrying out to try to help women—not just women who are victims of crime, but women in the economy. We have more women in the workplace than ever before, and we all know that financial independence is a key indicator when it comes to ensuring that women are not stuck in those terrible relationships that the hon. Lady has described.

Gender Pay Gap

6. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. (903879)

7. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. (903880)

8. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. (903881)

13. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. (903886)

15. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. (903888)

So far, more than 7,500 employers have registered their intention to report, and around 1,000 have published their data. The most recent data published by employers are publicly available via the Government viewing service on the gov.uk website. There is still more than a month until the public and private sector deadlines, and we expect reporting activity to increase significantly in the run-up to those dates.

One challenge that we face is that employers sometimes deliberately conflate fair pay with equal pay to avoid scrutiny of their conduct. A prime offender is the BBC. Seventy MPs wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture to ask him to use his power to ensure an equal opportunity for both men and women at the corporation to be heard on this subject. Given that he has refused to do so, will the right hon. Lady exercise her freedom of speech and have a word?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important matter. It has been instructive to see how the BBC has responded. I am happy to confirm that I will take forward her advice and indeed have a word.

What sanctions will be put in place for those companies that do not meet their obligations to publish their gender pay data by the deadline?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. We have put in place ground-breaking legislation to ensure that we close the gender pay gap. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will oversee any sorts of sanctions that are necessary. I hope that it will be its intention, as it is ours, to use persuasion and demonstration of the law to get participation, but of course it can use the full force of the law if it finds that the legislation is not being complied with.

What measures are the Government undertaking to work with private sector business, civil society and others to close the gender pay gap?

It is incredibly important that we do address closing the gender pay gap. Transparency is one of the key ways that we will achieve that. Having this compulsion of reporting on gender pay is an important first step, but we will take it further. We will engage with businesses to see what measures they will be putting in place to address the gender pay gap. My experience, when I talk to businesses about this, is that when they realise that they have such a gender pay gap—to some, it is a revelation—they are moving to put in training and other measures to address it.

Only three universities have so far reported on this. On a day when academics are bravely standing up to defend their pensions, will the Minister tell us when she expects that the gender pay gap will be eliminated in our universities?

I urge all universities to address reporting their gender pay gap. It is the law; they need to do so. I will say a word on the other matter, if I may. It is important that this dispute between students, effectively, the universities and their staff is resolved, because people need to get their degrees. I would urge the striking lecturers to get back to work.

So far, only 1,000 out of 9,000 companies that are obliged to publish gender pay gap data have done so. What are the Government going to do to up that figure and ensure that companies are meeting their obligations to publish this vital data, so that we have the full picture?

It is vital data, and Conservative Members are proud of it because it has been introduced by a Conservative Government. We will be contacting private sector companies, and public sector organisations, to make sure that they do report. This is an important first step, with 1,000 so far and more to go until the deadline. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to make perfect the enemy of the good.

When the Minister has a word with the BBC, will it be her contention that it is the men who are overpaid or the women who are underpaid?

That is almost a philosophical question from my hon. Friend. My priority is equality: that is the point I will be making.

Amongst other things, I have always thought of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) as a philosopher—[Interruption]—of some distinction.

Women Standing for Election

9. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more women to stand for election to public office. (903882)

I am proud to be part of the most diverse Parliament in history. My hon. Friend is of course making his own contribution by being the first British-Chinese Member of Parliament, for which I welcome him. We are commissioning evidence to identify strategies to overcome barriers to participation. Through our centenary fund, we are supporting projects to get more women involved in all levels of governance and ultimately to stand for elected office.

I thank the Minister for her answer and for her kind words. Twelve women Conservative councillors currently serve on Havant Borough Council, giving over 100 years of collective service. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support women into elected office at local government level and congratulate my friends locally on their service?

That is such a good question from my hon. Friend. It is so important that we also encourage women to participate more in local councils. Only 33% of local councillors are women, and I would like to see that number rise. I echo his thanks to his local councillors. I pay particular tribute to Councillor Gwen Blackett, who is soon to retire from Havant Borough Council following 45 years of service. I congratulate her on that, and congratulate the other women who have served as well.

The first woman to be elected to this Parliament was, of course, Countess Markievicz, an Irish nationalist. Is the Home Secretary, like me, looking forward to the presentation of a portrait of the countess next week by the Irish Speaker in the Irish Parliament to Mr Speaker in this Parliament?

Yes, I am looking forward to that, and I will make sure it is in my diary, so that I can join the hon. and learned Lady for the event.

Splendid. I look forward to the presence of the Minister for Women and Equalities. That will confer some additional glitter on our proceedings.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to support people back into paid work after time spent caring for others, of whom 90% are women. We know that too often, people with skills and experience struggle to get back into jobs after taking time out of the labour market to care for children or other family members, and that is a huge loss for the economy, employers and those individuals. That is why we committed £5 million to support people back into work in last year’s spring Budget.

In the summer, we also announced new public sector programmes for returners, and I am pleased to inform the House that programmes for people wanting to return to jobs in social work and the health professions and a programme for people wanting to join the civil service after a break are all up and running. Next month, we will be launching practical guidance to help private sector employers get more returners back at the right skill level. I will continue to expand opportunities for people who want to return to employment, and I look forward to giving the House further updates.

Tomorrow in my constituency of Cardiff North, I am hosting a pensions inequality meeting for women born in the 1950s. When will this Government be prepared to support these women all over the country who are being shamelessly exploited and robbed of their pensions?

This legislation was passed in 1995 to create an equality between men and women. Those who seek to change the legislation would be effectively creating an inequality between men and women on an ongoing basis that has a dubious nature in law and an inequality between 1950s-born women and 1960s-born women.

T4. In this important centenary year, what steps are the Government taking to tackle the online abuse of women in public life? (903926)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is so important to protect women particularly, who get the largest share of abuse, from the type of attacks that can put them off participating in public life. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a review that the Law Commission will do to ensure that what we say—what is illegal offline is illegal online—is actually the case and that the law is following that guidance. We will come back to the House with further updates.

I welcome the draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. As well as looking at new initiatives, I hope that it will consider the impact of Government policy on domestic violence. Will the Minister give a commitment that the child maintenance reform will include the abolition of the 4% tax on survivors of domestic violence? Will she ensure that that is included in the draft Bill?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I will refer to colleagues who are working on specific matters in relation to child maintenance, and we will make sure we write to her with a response on that important point within a week.

Some 89% of those who take time out of work to fulfil caring responsibilities are women, and employers, as my right hon. Friend has identified, have a huge role to play in helping women to return to work when they wish to. Can she set out more detail about the plans to publish guidance on best practice for private sector employers?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that this is a priority. It is a priority for individuals, employers, families and the economy, which is why we allocated £5 million in the last spring Budget to make sure that we set up programmes for training, guidance and supporting businesses and employers in achieving exactly that. I will have further announcements on this and look forward to making them to the House.

The Department for Education is currently reviewing relationships and sex education. Has the Minister taken the opportunity to emphasise to her Education colleagues how important it is to identify female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage as a priority area in the curriculum?

I am incredibly proud that this Government have made that commitment, and we are going to consult on it to ensure that we get it right. It is important to distinguish between relationships education, which is going to be compulsory in primary schools, and sex and relationships education in secondary schools. The areas the hon. Lady highlights will of course be considered as part of that, but this Government have actually done a lot to address the scourge, unpleasantness and horror of forced marriage and FGM.

Will the Minister update the House on what the Government are doing to improve female eligibility for auto-enrolment both nationally and in my constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed?

In 2012, the overall participation of female employees in workplace pensions was 58%, but this has now increased to 80%, which is above the figure for men. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 1,020 employers have enrolled 6,000 employees into an auto-enrolled pension, including a very large proportion of women. I will update the House with the number of auto-enrolled employees in every constituency very shortly.

T2. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that women are not asked about their family plans or their childcare arrangements in job interviews? (903923)

I think I can honestly say to the hon. Lady that I was as shocked as she no doubt was to hear about that. I will be discussing it with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and finding out what further communication to employers is needed to ensure that that does not take place, because it is clearly not allowed.

Businesses have just two weeks to file their gender pay gap reports. It is clear from some excellent investigative journalism by the Financial Times that some businesses have filed incorrect data. If this is done deliberately, what will my right hon. Friend do?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that issue. This is incredibly important to get right. The reporting on the gender pay gap will be a vital tool in ensuring that we close it. I will be discussing it with the EHRC, which is the group that will follow up with enforcement. It is sufficiently funded to do exactly that, and I will be turning to it to ensure that this is handled properly.

T3. With reference to the BBC and the gender pay gap, I have been looking at the diversity and background of the senior management at the corporation. Unfortunately, they will not play ball and give me the information I need to judge how they are doing in terms of diversity and social mobility, so will the Minister have a word with them about this as well? (903924)

It looks as though I will have a few things to take forward with the BBC, and I look forward to coming back to set out what those conversations have revealed.

Following the consultation that ended last September, when will my hon. Friend bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010?

My hon. Friend has of course done so much work on this issue. We are very clear that discrimination on the basis of caste is not acceptable, which is why we consulted on it last year. We are considering the results of the consultation as we speak, and the Government will respond shortly.

T5. What discussions have Ministers had with minority communities women’s groups, and how do the Government propose to address their specific concerns? (903928)

I have had a number of conversations with minority communities women’s groups. When I go out to discuss issues to do with integration, I always make a special point of engaging with women’s groups and finding out what else we can do to help them. Their concerns are often those that the hon. Gentleman and I might have about our own families—access to jobs, language courses and general public services—and my right hon. Friend the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary will shortly bring forward an integration strategy that will address some of those concerns.

May I urge the Home Secretary, when she has her excellent ongoing conversations with social media companies on the west coast, to don her ministerial hat as the Minister for Women and Equalities and look at what those companies can do proactively to ensure that women in particular are not put off from going into public life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the abuse of women online does put women off, and we need to make sure that less takes place in order to encourage them. The experience of my recent visit to the west coast to discuss high levels of crime online with the communications service providers—the internet companies—was productive. We have got them to agree to a number of additional measures that I think will persist.

T6. Will the Minister consider criminalising upskirting to end that degrading and humiliating practice? (903929)

Upskirting is a modern phenomenon, and it is fair to say that the law has not quite kept up with modern habits. It is an issue of which I am aware, not least because my police and crime commissioner campaigns on it thoroughly. The Government are considering the issue, and perhaps in due course I could meet the hon. Lady to discuss it with her.

I reassure my hon. Friend that we take domestic violence very seriously. We will shortly bring forward a consultation ahead of a new domestic violence Bill that will address that heinous crime and, I believe, start to reduce the amount of domestic abuse and violence that exists in this country.

There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that girls are missing days of school due to period poverty. During my Westminster Hall debate, the then Minister for Women said that she wanted to commission research, and in her answer earlier today, the Minister for Women, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) suggested that that has happened. May I ask what has been commissioned, what research is being considered, and when it will be published before the House?

We have sought to establish whether there has been any rigorous national assessment of the prevalence of period poverty and its impact on attendance, but none appears to be available. Last summer, we asked for help from the Association of School and College Leaders forum, and we received a limited response. We are trying to produce an analysis of our absence data to look for evidence of period poverty, and we will publish the findings of that in due course.

Further to the Minister’s earlier answer, if the state pension ages of men and women were to be different, would that infringe equality legislation?

Will the Minister explain what plans the Government will introduce to protect the 200 women and children who are turned away from refuges every single day?

I am proud that the Government have more beds available to victims of domestic violence than there were in 2010, and we take very seriously the issue of refuge for those victims. I am not entirely sure that the statistics used by the hon. Gentleman are correct, because sometimes when a woman is not accepted at one refuge and goes on to apply to a second or third, each application counts as one person being turned away. However, I share his view that we want to live in a country where women are not turned away and always have a place to go when they need it.