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House of Commons Hansard
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Women and Equalities
29 March 2018
Volume 638

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

STEM Degrees

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1. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of women choosing STEM degree courses. [904678]

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I am delighted to say that the latest data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows that there has been a 25% increase in the number of women accepted on to full-time undergraduate science, technology, engineering and maths courses since 2010, which is significantly more than the 14% increase among men. That is good progress, but there is more to do.

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That is superb news, and I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that the best way to encourage more women to study STEM subjects is via activities at school that bring them to life, such as the weekly STEM club at Torquay Girls’ Grammar School?

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I congratulate Torquay Girls’ Grammar School on having those weekly meetings, which I am sure act as an inspiration for young women to take up STEM subjects. I am pleased that since 2010, we have seen an 18% increase in the number of girls taking STEM subjects at A-level.

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In order to choose STEM subjects at university, girls need to have seen what fantastic careers STEM and engineering can offer. I know that many engineering companies want to go into schools and show that, but there is no co-ordination and no signposting of how they can do that. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that there is a central point where companies and schools can come together to get engineering into girls’ lives?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that young women need to see the benefits of studying STEM subjects, because then they can see the huge range of options opening up to them in the modern world. In fact, we have an ambassadors programme, to which 30,000 ambassadors are signed up, who go into schools and provide just the sort of inspiration that is needed.

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We know that gender stereotypes are established extremely early in a child’s life, so what support is the Department giving to campaigns to promote gender-neutral toys?

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I would say that there is sufficient peer pressure to make sure that producers and manufacturers of gender-specific toys are increasingly being encouraged to think again about that, so that we can encourage young women to make sure they take seriously their career options.

Universal Credit

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2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of universal credit on women. [904679]

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It is essential that women have opportunities to enter employment and to progress in work, and universal credit is designed to give them the assistance and tools to do so. Colleagues across the Government regularly discuss the impact of policies on women, and indeed on all groups.

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We know from the Women’s Budget Group that the cuts baked into universal credit—the two-child cap, the cuts to the work allowance and the benefits freeze—are having an even more detrimental impact on women than on men, so when will we see an urgent review of the gendered impact of the social security changes?

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The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in seeing welfare reform work in isolation from all the other assistance that has been offered to the low-paid, and in particular to women. Other measures, such as shared parental leave, the right to request flexible working, the 30 hours of free childcare and indeed the 85% of childcare funded through universal credit—or 600 hours of free childcare in Scotland—alongside the national living wage, which has given the lowest-paid their highest pay rise for 20 years, and the fact that we are taking millions out of tax by raising the personal allowance, offering training and assistance, and reducing the gender pay gap all point towards and have created the highest employment levels for women, at 70.9%, that this great and glorious country has ever seen.

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Is there evidence that the existence of in-work benefits disproportionately depresses female wages?

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My right hon. Friend often emerges from the forest to ask difficult and challenging questions, as he has now done to me for the second time this week. I am not aware that there is such evidence, but I am happy to go away and research it, and I will write to him if there is any.

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I ask the Minister to place a copy of his reply in the Library, because we will all be greatly interested in it.

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The Government claim that their universal credit alternative payment regime allows partners to apply for split payments in exceptional circumstances. However, few women are aware of this option, and 85% of domestic abuse survivors who contacted Women’s Aid have said that applying for split payments would anger their partners. Does the Minister agree with me that this should be mandatory, with payments split from day one?

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We are obviously very sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse, which is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. Work coaches in jobcentres are specifically trained to identify situations in which domestic abuse may be occurring and to offer options and assistance to people subjected to it, including alternative payments. We do not currently see the need for default split payments, because the current benefits system does not operate in that way, and a number of benefits are paid into joint accounts. However, we are aware that the SNP Government are working on an alternative, and we are happy to work with them on that in Scotland and to see how it goes.

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I will, if I may, push the Minister slightly more on that. We know that many women are prevented from accessing money because they are in abusive and controlling relationships. Given that, did the Government not give any consideration to the consequences for these women when they made the decision to put universal credit into a single bank account?

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We very obviously did consider that, which is why we created the alternative payment method. The current benefits system does not operate on a split payment basis, and we have not yet seen any evidence, in areas where universal credit has been rolled out, that the current system is exacerbating the situation. We firmly believe in our policy on domestic violence and abuse—the Government have made a significant commitment to that—and legislation on a comprehensive plan will come out later this year. We are not convinced that the benefits system is the way to solve domestic abuse, albeit we need to identify, in particular, women who are subjected to it and signpost them to the right kind of assistance, accommodating them in the system if we can. We do not think that doing this on a default basis is the correct approach at the moment.

BBC: Gender Pay Equality

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3. If she will discuss gender pay equality with the BBC. [904680]

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The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries and I will discuss pay equality with the BBC. We are clear that the BBC, as a public service broadcaster that is funded by the licence fee, has a responsibility to set an example on pay and other equality measures in the workplace. Getting that right is important for licence fee payers, as well as for all the talented women who work at the BBC.

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Even more disgraceful than its continued pro-remain Brexit coverage is the way in which the BBC discriminates against female employees. Will my hon. Friend invite the director-general into her office for an interview without coffee to make it quite clear that this continued maltreatment of female employees must stop immediately?

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We are in the process of arranging exactly such a meeting, but I must confess that I have not yet put my mind to our precise hospitality arrangements.

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Very important!

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Words are clearly not enough, so what steps are being taken to enforce gender pay equality in the BBC, as it seems that previous discussions on the issue have been supremely unsuccessful?

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We are clear that it is against the law to pay women differently when they do the same work as men, and that has been the law for some 40 years. The deadline for the gender pay gap data is next Wednesday, and large employers such as the BBC must have published their data by then. This is precisely about drawing open those areas where women are not being treated as fairly by their employers as men.

Taylor Review: Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

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4. What steps the Government are taking to implement the recommendations of the Taylor review of modern working practices on strengthening legislation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. [904681]

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As we said in the Government’s response to the Matthew Taylor review, we will update and consolidate pregnancy and maternity discrimination guidance on gov.uk this summer. We will also review statutory redundancy protection for pregnant women and new mothers, and consider whether it is sufficient.

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The Government have twice, and perhaps now three times, committed to review legislative protection against unfair redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers. When will that review be published, and do the Government still intend to consider the legislative options recommended in the report by the Women and Equalities Committee?

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We have stated that the review of the legislation on redundancy protection will consider that issue and report within a year. I recognise that this is a serious matter and I am trying to turbocharge the process to ensure that we report sooner. I reassure the hon. Lady that we take the recommendations of the Committee very seriously, and all options are open.

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The Minister knows that pregnant women deserve better—I know he is about to become a dad, so this is a very personal issue for him. It is estimated that about 54,000 women a year are dismissed or made redundant, or feel that they have no choice but to leave their jobs, and that is not good enough. Much of this is cloaked in secrecy because of the use of non-disclosure agreements to withhold information about potentially unlawful acts of dismissing women when they are pregnant. I hope that the Minister will put NDAs on his list of things to consider when he reviews the legislation, as he has generously promised to do.

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My right hon. Friend is right: the Griffiths household is waiting with bated breath—it is days before the next Griffiths generation appears on the planet.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the advice that the Committee has given me since I have had ministerial responsibility for this issue. Discriminating against women in the workplace because they are pregnant or new mothers is unlawful, and the Government are determined to stamp it out. She raises the issue of NDAs, and that topical and serious matter is at the top of my agenda.

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rose—

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The same bated breath may be expected to be detected in the Swinson-Hames household.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish the Minister well with his impending arrival. In addition to my obvious interest in this question, I remind the House of my former role as chair of the charity Maternity Action.

It is now two years since the Government published research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that I commissioned as a Minister back in 2013. That research showed that one in 25 pregnant women felt forced to leave their jobs because health and safety risks are not addressed. It is more than time for concrete action to tackle that, so will the Minister bring forward legislation to give pregnant women a clear right to paid leave if their employer cannot, or will not, provide a safe working environment?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her work in this area and wish her the best of luck with her impending arrival. Health and Safety Executive guidance helps employers to meet their health and safety obligations towards pregnant women and new mothers. Working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we have delivered several presentations to partnerships to share good practice, but she is absolutely right that we need to do more. I understand her point, and while I cannot commit to the request she makes today, we are certainly considering all options in this area.

Gender Pay Gap: Action Plans

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5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. [904682]

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9. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. [904686]

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11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. [904689]

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Last year we introduced groundbreaking regulations requiring employers to publish gender pay gap data. Reporting is an important first step, but what matters now is that employers actually take action. While this is not mandatory, we strongly encourage employers to publish a plan alongside their figures.

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It is clear from the most recent figures that the requirement on companies to publish pay data is not making a material difference to women’s pay. With the gender pay gap at 18.4% and a quarter of a million women paid less than the national minimum wage, does the Minister agree that the Government are all talk and no action on pay equality, and that to achieve pay parity we need much tougher measures?

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The gender pay gap, although completely unwelcome, is at the lowest level that we have ever seen. It is actually 9%, and the gender pay gap reporting that we have now mandated will help to drive that down. We are already seeing it very much as part of people’s conversations and I think we will see a material difference.

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The response to the Government’s gender pay audit has been slow, and global banks have revealed gender pay gaps as high as 60%. Does the Minister agree that, as Labour has proposed, companies should prove that they are taking timely action to close their pay gaps—apparently it takes a year to turbocharge something—or face a substantial Government fine?

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I share the hon. Lady’s outrage at some of the sizes of the gender pay gaps, but I feel that that just gives even more weight to the fact that it was absolutely right to bring forward last year’s legislation. Revealing pay gaps is exactly how we will start to get proper action.

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What assessment has the Minister made of recent gender pay gap analysis showing that multi-academy trusts have some of the worst gender pay gaps in the UK?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that multi-academy trusts are also covered by this requirement. We will see their reporting, which is taking place right now, and we will then assess what the consequences are, and whether additional action or influence is needed to ensure that improvements are made.

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What sanctions are available if companies fail to meet their legal obligations to help to close the gender pay gap?

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What is the law is that gender pay gap reporting takes place. The EHRC has the ability to take measures that can end up with fines and further sanctions. In terms of proposals for companies to actually close the gap themselves, we encourage them to put forward their own plans.

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Two weeks ago, I met senior managers at the BBC and discussed the gender pay gap. It is right that the BBC continues to attract talent, but has the Minister determined whether the gender pay gap at the BBC is due to men being overpaid or women being underpaid?

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The BBC certainly has a case to answer. We are aware, because it has disclosed this, that some senior male members of the BBC have addressed that by taking pay cuts. What really matters to us here, however, is that we get pay equality.

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I congratulate the Government on commencing the Labour party’s legislation—section 78 of the Equality Act 2010—that requires companies to report on the gender pay gap. Does the Minister agree with Labour Members that reporting is not enough if we want to close the gender pay gap? We need mandatory action plans for companies and sanctions.

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I thank the hon. Lady for congratulating the Government on doing something that Labour failed to do for 13 years. I am pleased that she welcomes the good responses that we are getting from companies in both the public and private sectors, but there is obviously more to do. I want to make sure that companies actually take action as a result. When we discuss this with them, they say that they will do that.

Diets During Pregnancy

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6. If the Government will take steps to adopt a cross-departmental approach to improving women’s diets during pregnancy. [904683]

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The Government are very keen to work collaboratively to help everyone to improve their diet, including women during pregnancy. Dietary guidance for women before, during and after pregnancy is available on NHS Choices and Start4Life, and via health professionals.

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Even with my large number of children and grandchildren, I am sure that the hon. Lady knows more about this than I do, but it is essential that pregnant women have a healthy and sensible diet. The approach on the ground is not joined up. Local authorities’ health education budgets have been under-resourced, and there is no join-up between health education and the other players.

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The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a father and a grandfather to many, so he knows an enormous amount about this. He is absolutely right that co-ordination across the piece is absolutely vital. It is also vital that we help to protect the less advantaged to make sure that everyone is able to have the healthy diet that they need during their pregnancies. That is why we have the Healthy Start programme, which helps hundreds of thousands of pregnant women, families and children under four who live in low-income households to sustain a healthy diet.

Caste (Equality Act)

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7. When the Government plan to respond to the consultation on caste as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. [904684]

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The Government’s consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination received more than 16,000 responses. This demonstrates how important the matter is to some groups and communities. We are analysing the responses and will respond in due course.

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I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but she failed to report that the consultation ended last September, meaning that the Government have had nearly six months to consider the huge weight of responses. I urge her to get on with the work, given the level of response, and to deal with this through the statute book once and for all, as is demanded by thousands of Hindu citizens across the country.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been an ardent campaigner on this point, not least, I suspect, because so many of his constituents are Hindus. We are rightly proud of our domestic anti-discrimination legislation, which provides one of the strongest legal frameworks in the world, and I have very much taken his comments about timing on board.

IVF

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8. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care steps to ensure the welfare of women receiving IVF treatment. [904685]

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Women’s welfare during IVF treatment is extremely important. The regulatory framework established by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 means that IVF can be provided only by clinics licensed by the UK regulator, which must ensure that all IVF services are safe and of high quality.

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This year we celebrate 40 years of IVF, and more than a quarter of a million children have been successfully conceived in the UK. However, a staggering 3% to 8% of women undergoing IVF suffer from moderate to severe occurrences of the completely avoidable ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, with a shocking three deaths every 100,000 cycles. Does the Minister agree that the outdated Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act should be amended to make essential provision for the welfare of women?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about this. IVF has made a massive difference to families up and down this country. I know that she has worked long and hard on this particular issue, for which I thank her. Health professionals always have a duty to act in the best interests of the patients whom they care for, and fertility treatment is no exception. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is leading work to better understand OHSS, and it will be supporting clinics to ensure that care is of the highest standard.

Shared Parental Leave

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10. What steps the Government are taking to increase the take-up of shared parental leave. [904688]

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The Government want more families to take advantage of the opportunities offered by shared parental leave. That was why the Government launched a £1.5 million communication campaign in February to raise awareness of the shared parental leave and pay schemes. This is ongoing, and is supported by improved advertising and guidance for parents and their employers.

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I welcome the Minister’s answer, but may I ask what discussions the Government have had about implementing the recommendation in the Fawcett Society’s sex discrimination law review that shared parental pay and paternity pay should be the right of all employees from their first day of employment?

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It is an obvious point. Many people say that one of the barriers to their taking shared parental leave is the difference in pay in relation to fathers rather than mothers. The shared parental leave scheme was only introduced in 2015; we are currently evaluating it to see how it is working, and we will report in the spring of 2019. However, the hon. Gentleman’s points are very relevant, and we are keeping abreast of the issue.

Upskirting

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12. If the Government will support legislative proposals to include upskirting as a crime under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. [904690]

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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this important issue. Upskirting is a disgusting and horrifying offence. There is a great deal more that we can do to educate the police and prosecuting authorities about their current ability to prosecute offenders under the outraging public decency offence, but we are also looking very actively at the private Member’s Bill tabled by the hon. Lady.

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I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet me in May to discuss the issue, but may I ask why he believes that the law is currently adequate? A 10-year-old girl was a victim of this crime not far from my constituency, but nothing could be done under the current law.

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The formal answer to that question is that, as the hon. Lady knows, the decision was made independently by the Crown Prosecution Service, but there are a number of laws under which we can currently secure successful criminal convictions. There is the outraging public decency legislation of 2015, and, in the case of a child, indecent images legislation. However, we clearly need think more about digital images in the current age, and we are happy to sit down and continue to discuss the hon. Lady’s Bill.

Women’s Refuges

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13. What assessment she has made of the effect on women’s refuges of proposed reforms to supported housing. [904692]

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The reforms will mean that the same amount of money that would have been available through housing benefit in 2020-21 will be made available as a grant to fund bed spaces directly. However, we are listening to the views of everyone involved in the domestic abuse sector, and we are carrying out a comprehensive audit of how domestic abuse services are delivered locally and how we can implement the best way to deliver those services.

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The Minister has said that she is aware of the huge concern in Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities about the ending of housing benefit for those in refuges, but there have already been cuts amounting to more than £6.5 million over the past eight years. Will she undertake to work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop proposals to address those concerns and ensure that places in refuges are available to those who need them?

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Refuges are a vital part of helping women and children to deal with the awful crime of domestic abuse and build better lives for themselves. We know that the number of bed spaces has increased by 10% since 2010, but we do not for a moment approach this issue complacently. I have said repeatedly, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that no options are off the table. We hope very much that the hon. Lady and others will contribute to our domestic abuse consultation to ensure that the law that we hope to introduce by the end of the Session is the best possible law to help the victims.

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Will the Minister reassure the House that any changes that the Government make will not reduce the number of women’s refuges? In particular, will she guarantee that they will not affect victims of human trafficking, whom the Government look after very well at the moment?

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My hon. Friend has led a long campaign on modern slavery and human trafficking. We are very happy to give the reassurance for which he asks. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister have made that commitment, because, as my hon. Friend knows, it is a personal priority for both of them.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [904693]

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If I may, I will briefly return to the issue of gender pay gap reporting. Tomorrow is the deadline for employers in the public sector to report their gender pay gaps, and all other employers with more than 250 staff must report by next Wednesday. I have this morning’s figures from the update of gender pay gap reporting, and I can inform the House that we have 98% registration and 81% reporting from the public sector and 82% registration and 45% reporting from the private and voluntary sectors. I hope that employers will take this opportunity to accelerate their reporting, because it is unacceptable in 2018 that there are still differences in the amounts that men and women are paid in industries from finance to beauty, and we intend to take action.

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As the local elections approach, will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to tackle online abuse of women in public office?

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This is such an important question. We all know how terrible the growth of online abuse has been, particularly towards women, and when we want to encourage more women to participate in public life, it is shameful that it takes place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has ordered a Law Commission review to ensure that what is illegal offline is illegal online and the appropriate action is being taken to follow that up.

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Many women will have slept a little more soundly last night after the decision by the Parole Board not to release the rapist John Worboys. The Government argued that a challenge was highly unlikely to succeed, but the brave survivors and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, proved the Government wrong. Will the Minister explain why, given the clear evidence that Worboys was a danger to women, the Government refused to take action?

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue, which is so important. I know that everybody feels enormous sympathy and concern for the victims of this terrible atrocity. I welcome yesterday’s result. We need victims to be supported and to feel that the law works for them. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has said that he will look at making sure that in future there are changes to the Parole Board to ensure that there is much more transparency in such incidents.

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T3. What is being done to ensure fair access to apprenticeships and work in all sectors for marginalised groups in society? [904695]

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and there are few in this House who have done more to champion apprenticeships and the benefits that they can bring, particularly to young people. We want all young people and everybody in work to benefit from the apprenticeship scheme, which is why we are committed to having 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. So far, we have achieved 1.2 million. It is also why we are spending some £2.45 billion in cash terms, double the amount we spent in 2010.

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T2. Have the Government made any assessment of whether local councils are meeting their duties under the Equality Act 2010, by keeping pavements clear of obstructions and safe for disabled people to walk? [904694]

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It is essential that disabled people can go about their daily lives. Particularly as we move towards the local elections, it is important that they can get out, so that we can ensure that everybody participates in voting. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I will find out from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government whether it has made any such assessment.

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On equality in politics for women, does the Minister for Women and Equalities agree with some senior Members in this House that the next leader of the Labour party, for instance, should be a woman and that perhaps that implies that the next leader of the Conservative party must be a man?

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Those are not matters for the Minister for Women and Equalities. Who knows, she might have a personal interest in these matters—I do not know? Let us hear from her anyway, because it is very interesting.

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I step forward gingerly following that introduction, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend will know that on the Government Benches we believe that merit should be the decider for high office, while believing that women should be equally represented. We feel that our selection process and our promotion process allow both things to take place, and we are proud of the party that has had two women leaders and two women Prime Ministers.

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T4. As one of the MPs who was happy to support the Guide Dogs Talking Buses campaign, I was pleased that the Government agreed to introduce legislation. The key question is: when will the regulations come forward that make audiovisual information mandatory on buses? [904696]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I will have to look into it and get back to him.

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T5. This is National Autism Week, and I should like to ask the Minister whether she is aware that girls are often picked up as being on the autism spectrum much later than boys. Will she urge her colleagues to ensure that, like Sweden, we have a good, early and specific test for autism in every primary school? [904698]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the fact that this is National Autism Week. We are all wearing our badges with pride, and I hope that he will take part in the Back-Bench debate on this subject later today. He is right to say that girls get diagnosed later and less frequently than boys, and this is something that we are looking at very carefully as we renew our work on the autism strategy.

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T6. Sir Robert Devereux, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions who oversaw the increase in the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, retired in January. My constituent, Paulette, a former NHS worker, wants to know why, having made national insurance contributions for 45 years, she will have to work until she is 66 to get a pension of £159 a week, while Sir Robert has retired with a taxpayer-funded pension of £85,000 a year at the age of 61. [904699]

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, this issue has been debated widely and extensively in this House. I would ask him to contemplate what inequalities would be produced for men, and indeed for women born in the 1960s, if changes were made to the pension arrangements, which have effectively been advertised since 1995, for women born in the 1950s.

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The appalling abuse of Alice Terry on social media overnight demonstrates the totally unacceptable direction of travel of political debate in this country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no party should have any problem whatever with signing the respect pledge?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I was shown the sort of abuse that Alice Terry received overnight, and it was particularly horrific and persistent. A lot of my colleagues on the Government Benches have stated their support for her, and I would urge some—not all—Opposition Members to take more action to speak out against such abuse because, as Lord Bew’s independent review of this issue has shown, a lot of it comes from the hard left, also known as Momentum.

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T7. The 113 MPs, including me, who wrote to the Home Secretary last year enjoyed some momentum and made progress when she agreed to undertake a review of the feasibility of exclusion zones around abortion clinics, but it is all gone a bit quiet since the evidence deadline passed. When can we expect the conclusions, and will there be good news for the vulnerable women who simply want to have their NHS treatment in anonymity and for the regular pavement users— [904700]

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Order. I am sorry. I do try to help the House by extending the envelope for topical questions, but it is not fair if Members then ask very long questions—[Interruption.] Forgive me; I do try to help Members, but Members must help one another.

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The hon. Lady will know, because we have spoken about this, how much I care about it. I thank her for bringing the matter forward. The consultation has concluded, and we are now looking at it. I will make sure that she is one of the first to know when we decide how to bring it forward.

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Gender pay gap reporting has made me angry, not just because companies need to do more but because we all need to do more. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should all check whether we have gendered expectations, particularly of children, and that those of us with influence should be very careful about how we treat young people?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the benefits of gender pay gap reporting is that it reveals what has been hidden before. In a lot of issues to do with gender, this is about making certain elements much more transparent than they were before. The hon. Lady might be angry, but I take the view that we need to take action. Taking action will do more than being angry.