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Women and Equalities

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 17 May 2018

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

STEM Careers

I call the Minister for Women and Equalities, on her debut at the Dispatch Box in this capacity I think: Penny Mordaunt.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to be here in my new role as Minister for Women and Equalities on International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and I hope all Members of this House will show their support to that cause today.

The Government have committed in our careers strategy to improving information and guidance on STEM careers. We are also raising awareness of the range of careers that STEM qualifications offer.

I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities and thank her for her commitment to women studying science and maths.

In Britain the percentage of women doing engineering is the worst in Europe: fewer than one in five of those studying physics A-level are female. I am going straight from here to the Institute of Physics. Will the Minister back up the Government’s words with action: break the deadlock and support prizes and grants for girls studying physics?

I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend can take that message very strongly to the meeting she is about to attend, and I thank her for the work she is doing to promote these careers and qualifications to girls. We fund the Stimulating Physics Network, which provides schools with the means to improve progression to physics A-level. The network provides activities specifically to increase the proportion of girls taking physics A-level.

Of all Ministers, this Minister will be the one who understands the opportunities for girls, particularly those following STEM subjects, in joining the armed forces. The RAF presentation team is coming to my constituency, and I have particularly focused on asking primary schools if they would like to see the opportunity that STEM subjects offer for careers in our armed forces: does she agree?

I agree so much that I signed up myself. I pay tribute to the armed forces for the work they have done in recent years, in particular the RAF, some of whose initiatives have been pioneering. I would like to see more women serving in our armed forces; our armed forces will be operationally better if that is the case.

Protected Characteristics: Caste

2. When the Government plan to respond to the consultation on caste as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. (905377)

Our public consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination ran for six months last year. We received more than 16,000 responses, which demonstrates how important this matter is to some groups and communities, and we will respond in due course.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post. She is the third Minister for Women and Equalities since the consultation closed, and I have no doubt that she is going to wade through those 16,000 responses, which will overwhelmingly be in favour of caste being removed as a protected characteristic. Will she agree to meet me so that I can brief her on the feelings of the community on this matter?

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. He has really championed this issue for a long time. I have already agreed to meet him, and I am very happy to do so, but I can reassure him that previous holders of this post have already briefed me and that this matter is receiving my immediate attention.

The Minister will be aware that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 requires the Government to amend the Equality Act 2010 to provide for caste as an aspect of race discrimination, and that case law will not be sufficient to do that. In addition to meeting those who advocate removing caste altogether from the legislation, will she also meet the all-party parliamentary group for Dalits, so that we can explain why the will of Parliament must be followed?

I will be happy to do that, and I would like to do it swiftly. I want to ensure that we take absolutely the right decision. The responses to the consultation were heavily weighted towards one outcome, but I want to know the case law and all the arguments before we take any decision.

Gender Pay Gap: Action Plans

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that companies publish action plans to reduce their gender pay gaps. (905378)

I am delighted that 10,212 employers have now reported their gender pay gap, as of 9 o’clock this morning. That is 95% of eligible employers. Of course, reporting is just the first step, and it is important that employers now take action to close the gender pay gap in their businesses and organisations. Many have already published action plans, and we are working to support employers to take action to close those gaps.

Of course, had the coalition implemented Labour’s ground-breaking 2010 Equality Act fully, we would be much further down the road towards gender pay equality today. It is all very well publishing the data, but when is the Minister going to show some grit and insist that companies produce action plans, so that we can make some real progress?

The hon. Gentleman does the Government a disservice, if I may say so. This is world-leading legislation, and I have always been careful to ensure that we share the credit for it with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who brought the Act into being. We are ambitious about this, but we want to bring business with us. This is about cultural change, and there are really good signs that businesses are now listening to the public’s will that women must be paid fairly and properly.

The new Minister for Women and Equalities made an announcement that was welcomed by the Labour party when she said that sectors under the Government’s remit would lay out plans for organisations to publish their gender pay gap audits. It is good to see that that is one of her first actions, but does it go far enough? Can we be a little bit more ambitious? Will the Government commit to taking the next step, just as the Labour party is proposing, and introduce mandatory regulation so that next year all companies will have to report action plans alongside their gender pay gap figures or face fines and further auditing?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We are reviewing the evidence carefully. We know, for example, that more than 10,000 businesses have been having a conversation about their pay policy in a way that they simply were not doing a year ago. We will review the evidence carefully and see what more needs to be done to ensure that businesses are working in accordance with the public will to ensure that these gaps are closed.

Leaving the EU: Effect on Women

4. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on women. (905379)

I have regular meetings and discussions with ministerial colleagues about the UK’s exit from the European Union. As we leave the EU, we are committed to retaining the rights of workers and all the protections of the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010, including those that particularly benefit women.

Is the Minister aware of how much EU funding specifically focuses on women and addresses the causes of gender inequality? Will she give assurances to the women of Wales and the rest of the UK that they will not pay a higher price when, or should, Brexit spark a downturn in the economy?

I can give them that assurance. Protections will still exist in our law, and we will have a dividend from leaving the EU, so we can choose what to spend that money on. It is wrong to scare people with the suggestion that equalities will somehow be watered down.

Freelance Workers: Shared Parental Leave

5. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the potential benefits for women of bringing forward legislative proposals to introduce shared parental leave for freelance workers. (905380)

The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me in the House before with his usual tenacity and clarity. Family leave and pay entitlements focus on supporting employed parents, because they do not generally have as much flexibility or autonomy in taking time off. However, we are not ruling out further support for self-employed parents, but that must be considered carefully in the wider context of tax, benefits and rights over the long term.

I want the Minister not just to rule it out; I want him to become a champion inside the Government along with his Women and Equalities colleagues. Shared parental leave for freelance workers would be one of the best ways to help women in the workforce to continue pursuing their careers. I ask the Minister to go away and think about that and to become a champion, rather than just someone who does not rule it out.

I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience, but progress is being made. He will know that a self-employed mother who wants to return to work without using her full maternity allowance entitlement can now convert that into 37 weeks of shared parental leave and pay for the employed father or partner. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we are considering the matter with great interest, and I will try to update him as soon as possible.

Given my hon. Friend’s personal interest in this matter, will he join me in supporting the Government’s “Share the joy” campaign to encourage greater take-up of shared parental leave?

I thank my hon. Friend. I assure him that Alice’s arrival into the world has certainly given me a greater understanding of the joy that comes from parenthood. The “Share the joy” campaign is a Government initiative to promote the benefits of shared parental leave, because we want more parents to enjoy that time with their newborn baby. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to promote shared parental leave to get more parents to enjoy it.

I very much hope that the Minister will have today’s Official Report framed and hung up in Alice’s room.

Business: Representation of Women

6. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that women are better represented at the highest levels of business. (905381)

Diversity is good for business. Organisations with the highest level of gender diversity in their leadership teams are 15% more likely to outperform their industry rivals. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100, compared with 21 such boards in 2011, and the percentage of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled since 2010. However, we know that there is more to do, which is why we commissioned the Hampton-Alexander review to improve female representation at the most senior levels in business.

Clearly, progress is being made, but in thanking my hon. Friend for her answer, may I ask how the Government are engaging positively with our business community to help meet the important Hampton-Alexander goals?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has taken a long interest in diversity matters. Indeed, he is meeting the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), this afternoon to discuss this topic. The Government-backed Women’s Business Council’s recent toolkit, “Men As Change Agents”, calls on FTSE 350 chief executive officers to embrace three asks to deliver the required pace of progress, including sponsoring women from within their organisation with the potential to secure an executive role within three years. My hon. Friend is keen to be an agent of change, and I welcome his support and that of other male colleagues in driving the progress that we all want to see.

I understand that 7% of FTSE 100 companies have women chief executive officers. By contrast, the figure for businesses in Latvia is something like 47%. What can we learn from Latvia?

Of course we are always willing to look at what is happening internationally. The hon. Gentleman will know that the plans in the Hampton-Alexander review are ambitious. For example, they require businesses, before 2020, to recruit women for one in two senior roles that now exist if business is to meet that goal. If it does not, the Hampton-Alexander review panel will look at what more should be done to encourage business to do so.

One way to encourage more women through to the highest levels of business is strong mentoring. What more can be done to help spread that and roll it out further?

Mentoring is just one way, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that sponsorship is very successful in driving women up the career ladder. That is precisely why the Hampton-Alexander review has given help through the Women’s Business Council and the toolkit. We have encouraged businesses to sponsor women within their organisation and to engage CEOs and other senior business leaders as change agents in championing the change required.

The Scottish Government have delivered a returners programme to assist women to re-enter the workforce following a career break. Will the UK Government consider doing something similar to ensure that women in England and Wales continue their career progression towards the highest levels of business?

Indeed. We have a scheme for exactly that. At the moment, we are looking at how best to spend that money, and I have a particular focus on teachers and social care workers to see if we can encourage them back into their professions. There is a much bigger challenge here for the private sector to make sure that women who have taken a break for caring reasons are encouraged back into the workforce, because we know that financial independence is a critical factor in making sure women have successful lives.

Domestic Abuse

This Government are firmly committed to tackling domestic abuse. On 8 March, alongside the announcement of the domestic abuse consultation, we announced an additional £2 million to improve the health response, offering further support to survivors of domestic abuse. The Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls to ensure that all Departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, work together to treat crimes such as domestic abuse as a priority.

I thank the Minister for her answer. She may be aware that, according to the SafeLives report published last year, early intervention through hospitals can reach four out of five victims who would not have reported the abuse to the police. Will she therefore outline what plans her Government have to ensure that all hospitals, in their A&E and maternity units, have onsite domestic abuse support workers?

The hon. Lady identifies a key touchstone for reaching women who perhaps have not been able to find the space or the courage to meet people who can give them help. There is a great deal of work going on, particularly with hospitals, as part of the £2 million package I announced earlier.

11. Although the Government say that victims of domestic abuse can apply for split payment of universal credit, a survey by Women’s Aid shows that 85% of survivors say they would not dare apply as an exceptional measure, as it would attract further abuse. Is the Minister for Women and Equalities willing to meet me to discuss the importance of delivering split payments as the default to protect the financial independence of women? (905387)

The hon. Lady and I have already met to discuss this, and I know that she is greatly concerned. I am discussing the issue with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and of course the Minister for Women and Equalities will meet her to discuss it further. We are very clear that the DWP and those who work in jobcentres are a gateway to potentially offering support and help to women who present with those symptoms.

Last week, I visited a refuge run by Hestia, the organiser behind next week’s “UK Says No More” campaign—I have spare badges. Hestia tells me that nearly 1 million children every year are affected by domestic abuse, yet there are no meaningful resources to help tackle the mental health issues experienced by those children. What more are the Government prepared to do to provide resources to address the mental health issues of the children affected?

I thank the hon. Lady for that. I know that she is personally very committed to this subject. I was delighted to join Hestia this week at its launch event for a piece of technology that I believe will have a real effect on helping survivors and victims of domestic abuse. We are allocating £8 million specifically to help children who witness domestic abuse in their homes, because we all recognise the great harm this can cause children, both at the time of the abuse and in the longer term. That is precisely why children will be at the heart of the draft domestic abuse Bill, which will be presented to this House in due course.

Gender Recognition Act 2004

8. When the Government plans to launch the consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. (905384)

The Government Equalities Office will publish a consultation on the 2004 Act shortly. Our national LGBT survey received more than 100,000 responses and we are using the results to shape the questions in the consultation.

I thank the Minister for that answer. On this International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, what message will her Department give to the Great British media that discrimination against trans people is unacceptable?

I would be very happy to send that message from this Dispatch Box today. It is crucial that as we consult and discuss sensitive issues we do so in a climate of respect, empathy and understanding. Anything that runs counter to that must cease.

I welcome the Minister to her place. May I take this opportunity to recognise the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia? As part of the consultation, will the Government make the necessary legislative changes to allow non-binary people to record their gender as X on passports and on other UK-wide records and identity documents?

If this long-awaited consultation is to have impact and be of good use, it should consult on a wide range of issues, some of which should be the non-binary issues.

Gendered Online Abuse

9. What discussions she has had with social media companies on tackling gendered online abuse on their platforms. (905385)

The Government are committed to making the UK the safest place to be online. Ministers and officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have had meetings with a range of social media companies to discuss abuse, including misogynistic abuse, on online platforms as part of our consultation on internet safety, to which we will respond imminently.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Half of all girls in the UK suffer online abuse and are bullied on social media. Girls are being told what to wear. They are being told to shut up about their opinions. They are being told about how they look. Is it not about time this Government take a serious look at this awful sexism and seek to regulate social media platforms?

I very much share the hon. Lady’s strong opinions, which are based on the facts: girls are intimidated and bullied disproportionately online, for all the reasons she sets out. I urge her to wait a very short time for our response to the internet safety consultation, which I trust will be robust.

Domestic Abuse: Support for Women

10. What steps the Government are taking to support women who are experiencing domestic abuse. (905386)

12. What steps the Government are taking to support women who are experiencing domestic abuse. (905389)

This Government have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, rolled out new tools such as domestic violence protection orders and committed £100 million to supporting victims of violence against women and girls. On 8 March, we launched the consultation on domestic abuse, which will include not just the draft Bill, but a package of non-legislative measures to take steps to further support victims and target perpetrators of this terrible crime.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. However, in 2016, the Ministry of Justice closed the courts in Halifax, and I hear from West Yorkshire police that it is now routinely taking up to 12 months for domestic abuse victims to have their cases heard in the neighbouring courts in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield. How have we allowed that to happen? Victims are withdrawing from that process. What are we doing to put this right?

I am concerned to hear that. If I may, I will take that away and discuss it with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. In west London, the tri-borough scheme includes specific specialist domestic abuse courts. I am currently looking into that, because there may be more that we can do in that regard throughout the country.

At Women and Equalities questions on 29 March, I asked the Minister about the concerns of Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities about the changes to supported housing funding, and I asked her to liaise with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Can she assure us that the concerns of Women’s Aid and other charities have been taken into consideration? What discussions has she had with that Ministry?

Discussions are ongoing; I speak constantly to my colleagues across the Government about the support we offer to victims of domestic abuse. The hon. Lady will know that we committed £20 million to the domestic abuse accommodation fund, and, like me, she will have been pleased that we introduced the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018 to help the victims of domestic abuse.

Topical Questions

Some 16% of the population is disabled, but their representation in our Parliaments, Assemblies and councils is far too low. It is primarily political parties’ responsibility to support their candidates properly, just as they must also support disabled employees. That is why I am announcing today that over the next 12 months my Department will, with others, undertake a programme of work to help political parties to best support their disabled candidates and to consider how independent candidates can be supported, too. While that work is under way, we will provide up to a quarter of a million pounds to support disabled candidates for elections in the forthcoming year. I shall keep the House updated.

It was an honour and my privilege to have whipped the equal marriage Bill through this House. Will the Minister complete that work by abolishing civil partnerships?

Although the demand for civil partnerships has tailed off since my right hon. Friend’s efforts were brought to bear on that Bill, they are extremely valued by some people, and others would also like the opportunity to have a civil partnership. We are looking into the issue and have commissioned some additional research into opinions on and attitudes towards civil partnerships, but whatever the outcome of that research, I assure my right hon. Friend that they will not be compulsory.

I congratulate the Minister and welcome her to her new role. In the past 12 months, I have congratulated no fewer than three Ministers on their appointment to the role. [Interruption.] “Get used to it,” I hear from a sedentary position, and that is exactly the problem. Responsibility for women and equalities has been passed from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to the Department for Education, then back to the Home Office, and now it is with the Department for International Development. To add insult to injury, the Government Equalities Office will see its funding cut by almost half. All that does not really scream a commitment to women and equalities. Does the Minister agree that the Equalities Office needs a stable Department with proper funding?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. We do need to stabilise the work of the GEO and to increase what we are doing on the equalities agenda across the Government. We have done some tremendous things in recent years, and we need to build on that work if we are really to address inequalities, not only in the policy areas for which I am directly responsible but across the Government, including in disability, age discrimination and elsewhere. Since I have taken this post, I have given this a lot of thought, and I will make some announcements in the forthcoming weeks.

T2. Equality of access to education and schooling opportunities for women and girls in the developing world is central to their life chances. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support initiatives to widen access to education and schooling for women and girls? (905393)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are some good tie-ups between the work of the Department for International Development and the Women and Equalities role. I hope that I will be able to help both Departments by being the joint Minister. We spend around £1 billion on education, half of which is specifically to help girls to access good-quality education. Most recently, we announced a further £212 million of funding through the girls’ education challenge, to ensure that almost a million more marginalised girls throughout the Commonwealth can receive good-quality education.

Earlier in questions, the sharing of data and the working together of Departments in relation to domestic abuse and domestic violence was mentioned. Some time ago, I had a constituent whose data was shared, which meant that she had to come out of hiding, where she was being protected, and to move to another place because of that sharing of data by the Department for Work and Pensions. I know that that is something that the Minister is working on, but can she ensure that the highest possible resource and focus is given to this issue, because my constituent’s life was put in danger by the fact that her data was shared with her ex-partner?

I am dismayed to hear that. Clearly, that is not the intention of the amendments to the Data Protection Bill. We have put a declaratory statement in the Bill to encourage and give confidence to all the agencies involved in safeguarding that, under the Bill, they do have the right to share information for the purposes of safeguarding. I am extremely concerned to hear of the hon. Lady’s case, and if she will write to me please, I will look into it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; it is an extremely important and pertinent one. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK is both unacceptable and, frankly, frightening for anyone of a Jewish background or disposition. We should all do what we can to tackle it. Our relationship with the Jewish community has been built on the solid work of the cross-Government working group on tackling anti-Semitism, which ensures that any issues are brought forward quickly and are dealt with. The Government are providing more than £13.4 million to ensure the security of Jewish faith schools, synagogues and communal buildings, following the concerns raised by the Jewish community. I wish that we did not have to spend that money, but we do, and we are.

Will the new Minister, whom I, too, congratulate, now publish the long-awaited inquiry of the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), into the safety of women accessing abortion clinics? Will she also take up the recommendation of 160 parliamentarians, including David Steel, author of the Abortion Act 1967, to introduce buffer zones?

May I thank the hon. Lady, who has run such an effective campaign on this, and the colleagues across the House who have written about this matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary? As she knows, the previous Home Secretary, in her capacity as both Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, took this subject extremely seriously, as does the new Home Secretary. We are drawing together the evidence and looking at it very carefully, and we will, of course, let the House know the results of that review as soon as we can.

T4. I welcome the Government’s commitment to transparency through gender pay gap reporting. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how many employers have reported during the first year of this new scheme? (905397)

That is a typically astute question by my hon. Friend. As of 9 o’clock this morning, 10,212 businesses and organisations had responded, and 95% of all businesses and organisations that should have replied had done so, and we are now chasing the other 5%

The trans community suffers some of the most profound discrimination across the world. Will the Minister advise the House what discussions are being held with her colleagues in the United States of America, where we are seeing an incremental rolling back of the rights of trans American citizens that fundamentally undermines the principles of America’s liberal democracy?

One thing that I have been conscious of is how the progress that we have made on these issues and on wider issues has been a catalyst for change in other countries all around the world. We in the UK have a very important role to play. Let me give Members one example. At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government summit, our Prime Minister used the key part of her plenary session to champion the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We will continue to do that in every nation on earth.

Women used to lag well behind men in terms of workplace pensions. Will the Minister update the House on the current situation?

It is true that women used to lag behind men in terms of workplace pensions, but at 73% their participation rates are now equal to those of men in the private sector. Thanks to auto-enrolment, 10,000 men and women in my hon. Friend’s constituency now have a private pension. Thanks are also due to the 1,670 employers assisting them.

Particularly given her statement at the start of topical questions, will the Minister for Women and Equalities tell us what progress she has made in getting the position of disability commissioner reinstated at the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

I have been aware of this issue for some time, from a previous brief, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the commission is currently going through a tailored review that will look at the structures it has in place to represent and hear the views of disabled people and enable commissioners to focus on their needs and rights.