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Women and Equalities

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 15 November 2018

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—


We are committed to tackling misogyny and gender inequality, and have pledged £100 million over four years to support our strategy to combat violence against women and girls. We will soon publish our plans to tackle sexual harassment, and we have asked the Law Commission to consider whether sex and gender should be included under current hate crime legislation.

Actions may be criminal, but will the Minister ensure that we do not stray any further into the realms of thought crime?

Of course not: hate crimes are crimes that already exist as crimes in themselves, such as assault and criminal damage, but for which the hatred of a protected characteristic is the aggravating feature that enables judges to reflect that in their sentencing, and we have asked the Law Commission to consider whether sex and gender should be added to those protected characteristics. There will be no legislation for thought crime from this Government.

Recent work done in women’s prisons shows that 48% of women prisoners have had a major brain injury before going to prison, the vast majority due to domestic violence. Could we not solve some of the problems of crime if we dealt more robustly with domestic violence?

I am so pleased the hon. Gentleman raises this point. As he knows, the Government are committed to a domestic abuse Bill. The draft Bill will be published by the end of this Session and there will be a whole range of non-legislative measures with that proposed legislation as well. I hope the whole House will join me in fighting this terrible crime, because it has such enormous impacts not just on the immediate victims themselves but on wider society.

I hope the Minister will agree with me when I say that language is extremely important in terms of misogyny and the way that men, in particular, behave in politics at all levels across the United Kingdom. Will she consider formal training not just for MPs but those in devolved institutions and councils across the country, because misogyny is never acceptable?

I think that this is where we, as a society, need to make it very clear that we do not expect women to be shouted at in the street or have very unpleasant things said to them. I know there are Members of this House who suffer such abuse on a daily basis on social media. That is simply unacceptable, so I join the hon. Gentleman in saying to everyone in this House that how we use our language really matters and that we must ensure our young people grow up with that clear message, too.

Universal Credit

Universal credit treats all individuals equally, irrespective of gender. It provides one-to-one support and incentives to help claimants progress in work. The latest Office for National Statistics labour market statistics show a near record high rate for women in employment.

The Minister will know that universal credit pays less to lone parents under 25 than the current legacy benefits. Given that 90% of young lone parents are women, surely that is a clear and blatant case of discrimination against them. Will the Minister speak to the new Work and Pensions Secretary to ask for a review of this policy?

We support everyone on the universal credit system, including lone parents. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in the Budget we announced an extra £4.5 billion of support which included increasing work allowances, and childcare support is available for parents of young children.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the £1.7 billion announced in the Budget to increase work allowances for families with children, which will mean that 2.4 million families will be better off?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I always find it interesting when Opposition Members talk about helping their constituents. Sadly, what they do not then do is vote in the Lobby to support the policies designed to help those very people.

In Northern Ireland, we listened to organisations that work in the area of domestic abuse and introduced split payments. Will the Minister consider what has happened in Northern Ireland? It is a low-cost, no-cost option. Will he consider introducing it to ensure a safety net for those people who are in abusive and controlling relationships?

As the hon. Lady knows, split payments are available under universal credit. It is very important that if any individuals are facing the sort of abuse she talks about, we need to be able to signpost them to additional support. We give training to our work coaches to allow them to do that.

Universal credit comes to Castlemilk in my constituency next month, where there is a women’s group supporting women who have fled or who are living with domestic violence. They are deeply, deeply concerned about universal credit coming. Will a Minister please come to Castlemilk to meet these groups of women?

I go up and down the country to jobcentres, and I will, of course, go to Scotland in due course, but what I hope the hon. Gentleman will do in turn is talk to local jobcentres in his area and seek that assurance as well for his constituents.

The reality is this: women who work, women without children, women with children, disabled women, black, Asian and minority ethnic women and women fleeing domestic violence have all been punished by universal credit. Report after report has issued stark warnings about the design of universal credit and its impact on survivors, but the Government refuse to listen. Instead, they make claims about a landmark domestic abuse Bill, while their policies, staff and systems are failing to protect survivors. It makes no sense. Will the Minister show some compassion when he gets to his feet and halt the roll-out of universal credit until it is fixed?

We are keen to support everyone who is coming on to universal credit. That is why earlier this year we introduced £1.5 billion of support. In the Budget, we had another net £4.5 billion of support produced. With respect, I say to the hon. Lady that if she wants to help her constituents, she should vote for the measures whereby we put more money into the system.

Equality Act 2010: Commencement of Section 106

3. Whether she has made a recent assessment of the potential merits of commencing section 106 of the Equality Act 2010; and if she will make a statement. (907634)

We keep any uncommenced provisions from the Equality Act under review. Equality is never a one-time fix and it is right that we keep re-examining these issues. However, political parties are responsible for their candidate selection and should lead the way in improving diverse representation.

Gender pay gap reporting has ensured transparency across the board and resulted in companies taking action. Section 106 could have the same effect, so will the Minister consult those parties on its introduction?

I hope that every party is looking at this legislation. Certainly, the Conservative party is looking at how we can gather this information, not just for the national Parliament but for local government, because we believe it is absolutely essential that local government reflects the society it serves as much as this House does.

I know that the Minister has committed to increasing the number of women in Parliament. Does she agree that we have a woman Prime Minister and strong women Secretaries of State, such as the woman beside her at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State for International Development, who should be congratulated on the support and the leadership they show to women across the country?

I think it is 2-0 to us. This is a serious point. In the Labour party, there are many, many strong, capable women I have very good working relationships with. It is a great shame that the Labour party has never managed yet to entrust the leadership of its party to a woman—[Interruption.] I see somebody volunteering on the Opposition Front Bench. We have the opportunity to bring more women into this Parliament through an event next week, on 21 November, when every Member of Parliament can bring a woman into the House of Commons and invite them to stand in this House.

A number of single parents have accessed the advance payment service under universal credit. However, as a result, they have found that the payments are required to be repaid in 15 months, or with 40% of their entitlement reclaimed. What will the Government do to ensure that many are not falling further into financial hardship as a result of advance payments under universal credit?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. The only difficulty with her question is that it does not seem altogether aligned with, or even adjacent to, the subject matter on the Order Paper. Her supplementary question would have been entirely pertinent to Question 2, but I am going to imagine that she has a great interest in section 106 of the Equality Act and that there is some sort of link, unknown to me but known to clever people like Ministers.

I am very interested by the hon. Lady’s question—I am so interested that I am going to ask the responsible Minister to write to her in due course. But I make the point that the more female Members of Parliament we have in the House, the more they can scrutinise this legislation.

The Government have kept that under review, but, as I said earlier, it is also for political parties themselves to act on it, so I am pleased that the Conservative party is looking into how we can gather the evidence in order to improve diversity in our candidates list.

Order. There is a certain amount of gesticulation from a sedentary position. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) is signalling that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) wanted to come in on Question 2. I am sorry if she has been inconvenienced, but she needed to bob on Question 2, not Question 3. But never mind; she has made her point with considerable force and alacrity, and it is on the record. I would call her again, but she is entitled to only one. However, she has made her point very clearly, and we are extremely grateful.

Domestic Abuse Survivors: Workplace Policy

4. If the Government will take steps to ensure that companies put in place workplace policies to support survivors of domestic abuse and reduce its effect on the workplace. (907636)

The Government are committed to transforming their approach to domestic abuse, and that includes improving the response of employers to this devastating crime. We have therefore awarded £1 million to the charity Hestia for its “Tools for the Job” pilot project, which will help employers to improve their HR policies on domestic abuse and will fund specialist employment domestic violence advocates. We are also working closely with the employers initiative, which does similar work.

Victims of domestic abuse and violence tell us that a short period of leave from work while they manage to sort out the difficulties in their lives would be helpful. Will the Minister agree to meet employers and trade unions to discuss the possibility of introducing paid leave for victims of domestic violence?

Very much so. I keep pointing out to employers that having policies that can help to identify and support victims of domestic abuse in their workforces makes not only good moral sense but good business sense. I should be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman, and employers and trade unions, to discuss what more we can do to help.

Of course, domestic violence affects not just women but men, too; but what contact has my hon. Friend had with companies such as the John Lewis Partnership, whose chief executive takes a particularly proactive approach to care in her company?

We tend to focus on women as being the victims of domestic abuse because the statistics show us that it is a gendered crime, but I never forget the fact that, of course, men can be the victims of domestic abuse. That is why we are doing a great deal of work, both through the domestic violence and abuse Bill and through non-legislative measures, to support them and ensure that services are there for them.

I am sure that the John Lewis Partnership is part of the employers initiative, a piece of work in which I am very involved and about which I am very enthusiastic. I should be delighted to support John Lewis not just in a spending capacity, but in a legislative capacity as well.

When I recently visited a Leeds Women’s Aid hostel, which does fantastic work throughout my city, it raised the problems experienced by women in low-paid work in accessing emergency accommodation. What support can the Government give to ensure that women feel confident enough to leave violent relationships and seek support?

The hon. Lady has raised an extremely important point. There have been more refuge places since 2010 under this Government, and in the summer we reconfirmed the funding arrangements for refuges. When I visit refuges, which are incredibly important places for women who need to flee very dangerous situations, what I hear from those women is that they would like to have that support at an earlier stage so that they do not have to be the ones who leave—so that he leaves, rather than her—and we are working on that as well.

Gender Pay Gap

It’s me again!

It is encouraging that the national gender pay gap is at its narrowest ever, but it will take time and action by employers if we are to close it entirely. I am thrilled that more than 10,000 employers reported their gender pay gaps this year, but that is just the first step. We are now working with employers to help them to understand their gender pay gaps and what plans they could make to close them.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Does my hon. Friend agree that not just 10,000 employers but 100% of all eligible employers have reported their data and that that provides a baseline on which future progress can be measured and recorded?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a committed feminist on this subject. Interestingly, not only have more than 10,000 businesses had to have this conversation about how they treat women in their workplace, but we know it is having a trickle-down effect on employers who do not necessarily meet the threshold. I know from the conversations that I have had with business leaders that they understand: the will is there for them to change. They want to do so, and they want to do so in partnership with us in government.

Given the early signs of the success of mandatory gender pay reporting for large businesses, has the Minister considered extending pay transparency to tackle wider inequalities, as recommended by the Institute for Public Policy Research, such as requiring companies with 50 or more employees to report not just on gender pay, but ethnicity and disability gaps?

A huge amount of work is going on, and as the hon. Lady rightly says, the focus this year has been on gender inequality, but we are extending it to ethnic diversity and so on. Interestingly, we have just announced that we are consulting on whether businesses should publicise their parental leave policies to help women and carers.

11. What steps are the Government taking to mitigate the effects of the rising retirement age for the millions of women who will have accrued less in their pension pot due to the gender pay gap? [Interruption.] (907645)

Forgive me if I have had not heard the hon. Gentleman correctly because of the hubbub in the Chamber; it is wonderful that everybody is so excited about women and equalities today.

The gender pay gap for women between the ages of 40 and 49 has fallen since 2010, but we published the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy last year and continue to work with businesses to ensure that everyone can adapt to the changing face of the workplace.

It is disappointing that the Government rejected the Women and Equalities Committee recommendation of a cross-departmental race equality strategy. Can the Minister at least commit to making the reporting of a race pay gap compulsory, in line with the gender pay gap?

As I have said, a great deal of work is going on, and I had a meeting earlier this year on exactly this point and look forward in due course to working with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on how we can close these gaps as well.

Business Start-ups

The Government-owned British Business Bank provides start-up loans for new entrepreneurs, and women account for 39% of recipients. The bank is also conducting a review into specific barriers female-led businesses face in accessing venture capital. All entrepreneurs in England can access advice and support from growth hubs and business support helplines, and 45% of the helpline users were women in 2017-18.

Will my hon. Friend welcome the work of the entrepreneur Alison Cork in setting up the Make It Your Business network to support women who want to start their own businesses, including a branch in my constituency, Chipping Barnet?

I welcome such initiatives that encourage and support women to start their own businesses, and I also appreciate the work of my right hon. Friend’s constituent Alison Cork. Connecting people and building networks is an important part of supporting entrepreneurs. That is why the Chancellor announced in the autumn Budget another £20 million to strengthen local networks.

Many women experience debilitating symptoms during the menopause, with 72% saying they feel completely unsupported at work during this time. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can make the necessary legislative changes so that these women feel supported?

The hon. Lady is a champion for all things around women, and I would be happy to meet her at some stage to talk about her particular concerns.

Women in Parliament: Centenary

8. What plans the Government have to mark the 100th anniversary of women being allowed to stand for Parliament. (907641)

I know my duty, and at 10 am this morning, it was to be in this House answering questions. [Interruption.]

The Government Equalities Office will be holding a conference to celebrate the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 on 21 November 2018. The GEO is also providing financial assistance to ensure that every MP in this House can invite a woman constituent into Parliament for the day, and I hope that all MPs will be doing that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. It was great to see female MPs from around the globe pledge to support one another’s fight for gender equality recently. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on that first ever meeting of women MPs from every Parliament around the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. One of the outcomes of that day, alongside the issues that the women discussed, was the desire expressed by me and the other host of the event that those women should form a lasting network to support one another in fighting for gender equality around the world.

Budget 2018

As a result of meeting the commitments to raise the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate threshold to £50,000 one year early, 13.6 million women will see their income tax bill reduced in 2019-20 and 1 million women will be taken out of income tax altogether.

Thank you very much for allowing me a supplementary question, Mr Speaker. What steps are the Government taking to address the pensions inequality faced by older women affected by the rise in the state pension age?

I will be making an announcement on this in my topical questions statement. It is important that the Government Equalities Office, which has rightly concentrated on executive women and women in the workplace, should broaden the scope of its work to look at wider issues, including the financial fragility of some women.

My apologies to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin). I was trying to do three things at once, unsuccessfully.

Topical Questions

To ensure that the Government Equalities Office is at the heart of this Government’s work, the Prime Minister has agreed that it will join the Cabinet Office from 1 April next year. This machinery of government change will provide a permanent home for the Government Equalities Office in line with the key recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee earlier this year. It will enable the GEO to have even more influence and leverage within the Government, working with the Race Disparity Unit, the Office for Disability Issues and others to drive meaningful progress on equalities. This will be a step up in the work that the GEO can do to reduce inequality in the UK.

Across all parties, nearly 50% of Havant Borough Council’s councillors are now women. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage more women to stand for election at local government level?

The women’s centenary suffrage fund supports initiatives across England to engage women in local democracy. We will also be funding an Ask Her to Stand event. We funded one in July that was attended by more than 300 women, many of whom were interested in becoming councillors. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s borough on the progress that it has made.

I am pleased that the Minister for Women’s duty was to be here at 10 o’clock. I wonder whether that will still be the case at 11 o’clock. A shocking new report on maternity support for female offenders by Dr Laura Abbott, a specialist midwife and academic, has highlighted a real gap between what is recognised as being needed and what is actually provided for pregnant women in prison. Can the House be assured that specific mandatory provision for pregnant women and new mothers in prison will be included in any future framework?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We know that quite often the care given to female offenders in prison does fall short, and I will look at the specific issue that she raises. Clearly, we need to ensure that the best maternity support is given to them.

T3. There are now more than 1 million women-led small and medium-sized businesses in the UK—women such as my constituent Erin Rodgers, who set up Our Little Globe, an educational subscription box that aims to teach young children about the world and the people in it. New businesses such as Erin’s need financial support in the initial stages to grow. Will my hon. Friend outline what support is available for women wanting to start their own businesses? (907649)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for highlighting her constituent Erin Rodgers. The Government support offer is available to all those wishing to grow a business, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. We back the Start Up Loans Company, which has been providing funding and incentives to support new entrepreneurs since 2012. It has delivered loans totalling £446 million, 39% of which went to women. I wish Our Little Globe every success for the future.