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Topical Questions

Volume 651: debated on Thursday 20 December 2018

I want to ensure that people across the country have financial independence and resilience, as well as a real choice and influence over the economic decisions in their lives. That means doing more for low-paid and financially fragile women, who face multiple barriers and are currently reaping the fewest economic rewards. I will publish a strategy in late spring, outlining our vision and plans to promote gender equality and economic empowerment. It will outline how the Government Equalities Office, from its new Cabinet Office home, will work across Government and with business and civil society to tackle persistent gendered inequalities that limit economic empowerment at every stage of life.

Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you and all Members and staff of the House a very merry Christmas?

The majority of people in insecure employment are women. The right to ask for more hours, which was announced on Monday, already exists, and it is no right at all because the employer can just say no. Will the Minister therefore tell the Business Secretary that if he is serious about making a difference to women in part-time work, he will have to do significantly better than this?

I take a different view and welcome the announcement to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and others that this Government have made on supporting women, whatever stage they are at in their lives and careers. However, I think that we need to do more. That is why I am broadening the remit of the Government Equalities Office and creating an equalities hub in the Cabinet Office, at the heart of Government. We are already working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but we do that with every Government Department, because only when we do that will we be able to move at the speed necessary to meet the ambition of women in this country.

T3. This is the season of good will, and some minds will be turning to the new year’s honours list. Those who receive honours are rightly recognised for their outstanding public service, regardless of their gender, sexuality or beliefs, but the same is not true of the treatment of their spouses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the honours system should treat all spouses with similar courtesy, whether they are men or women, gay or straight? (908358)

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The Cabinet Office is doing great work to create more diversity in the honours list, but inequality is baked into the system, including in the use of courtesy titles. It is quite wrong that people are treated differently in this way, so I have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ask that it is remedied.

May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, everyone who works here and all Members a very merry Christmas? On the Christmas theme,

There are five days to Christmas, so will the Minister promise me:

An action plan to close the pay gap;

To end period poverty;

Sustainable funding for refugees;

Section 106 of the Equality Act;

Paid leave for domestic survivors;

And no more austerity?

I wish those on the Opposition Front Bench a very merry Christmas. The hon. Lady is right to present us with a list. I too have a list—[Hon. Members: “Sing it!”] No, I would not inflict that on Members. She is right to raise those important issues. I certainly wish to ensure that the Government Equalities Office can deliver on those issues, but also on other areas. From April next year, when the GEO will be in its new home, we will be able to do that much more effectively. In the meantime, we will be producing additional work, including the strategy I just referred to in my topical statement, which I think will be of huge assistance to all Government Departments in delivering for women.

T6. What steps are being taken to improve accessibility to tax-free childcare for carers and other economically inactive women who are looking to take on part-time work? (908361)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Carers do a huge amount and are often unsung heroes. Both they and other economically inactive women may be entitled to support of up to 85% of their eligible childcare costs, through universal credit. That is in addition to the Government’s 15 hours’ free childcare entitlement for three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is currently running a campaign to raise awareness of tax-free childcare, including through a new marketing strategy launched in September this year.

T2. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about how they can mitigate the difficulties and hardship that women who were born in the early 1950s are experiencing? (908356)

Fear not, Mr Speaker: I will not sing my answer and ruin the festive spirit.

The subject raised by the hon. Gentleman has been debated extensively and we have already put in place an additional £1.1 billion-worth of transitional arrangements. Despite the fact that a retired female would expect to get the state pension for 22 years, which is two years more than a retired male, thanks to our reforms more than 3 million more women will receive an average of £550 per year more by 2030.

I have taken on board your wise words on perseverance, Mr Speaker, so when will my right hon. Friend introduce proposals to repeal the Equality Act 2010, which makes specific provision for caste as a protected characteristic?

My hon. Friend is consistent and persistent, and he is right to be. We obviously need a suitable legislative vehicle and parliamentary time, but our request to proceed with drafting has been cleared by the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee. On the guidance that we want to provide, we are confident that we can publish it before summer.

T5. I have a very vulnerable constituent who was kidnapped and raped abroad and then had to stay in the country for the trial. She has now returned home to the UK, but has been refused benefits after failing the habitual residence test. Will the Minister speak to her ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and ask them to meet me urgently to discuss this horrific case? (908360)

I am very concerned to hear that. I note the work that is going on through all-party groups to help victims of crimes and their families overseas. I will of course take away what the hon. Lady has said, and if she would like to meet me to discuss the case, I would be happy to. I will also ensure that the Minister from the relevant Department meets her.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and commiserations on last night’s football result.

Will the Minister welcome the work of Cats Protection, which fosters cats to enable women to flee domestic violence safe in the knowledge that their family pet is well looked after until they find a secure home?

I must declare an interest, because I own the most beautiful cat in the world.

I am delighted to hear of that organisation and the work that it does. It is a fantastic charity, and I think I should visit it as a priority, as part of not only my Home Office role but my ministerial cat responsibilities.

T7. . Mr Speaker, may I, too, wish you, all the staff and Members of this House a very happy Christmas? However, over this Christmas season women survivors of domestic abuse in households receiving universal credit will find it harder to leave than they should if their universal credit payment is paid to their abuser. Only yesterday, the director of Women’s Aid said of the Government’s ongoing refusal to introduce automatic split payments for universal credit:“We know from our research into the impact of universal credit that it risks exacerbating financial abuse for survivors and poses an additional barrier to survivors’ ability to escape the abuse.”What representations is the Minister for Women and Equalities making to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to urge her to address this outrageous inequality now? (908362)

I have met Women’s Aid three times in the past month, as well as Refuge and ManKind, as we are looking to improve the support available through universal credit, based on the three key principles. The first is identifying people, whereby those organisations are helping directly to sort out training and guidance for all our frontline staff so that people can be identified as quickly as possible. Secondly, we are building on the principle of referring, so that all local and national partnerships are then made available. Finally, we are supporting people, to make sure they are fast-tracked to get a single status universal credit claim, advance payments and, where appropriate, split payments.

The Government’s new code of practice is a welcome step in tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, but will the Minister listen to the concerns of the Fawcett Society and provide a formal duty on employers to prevent harassment in the workplace, without which the code falls short and women will be left to deal with this problem on their own?

I very much understand the call for a formal duty and we listen to it carefully, as we do to the Women and Equalities Committee report. We have committed to consulting on that, because this is very complex and we need to make sure we understand not only the scale of the problem, but potential answers to it.

We are, as colleagues can see, running late, but there is no particular pressure on time today and I would like to accommodate remaining colleagues.

The Minister will know that recently I got involved in tackling this vile practice of sex for rent, and we all understand it is a complex problem. I am grateful for the review of the guidelines and that new guidelines are going to be issued to the Crown Prosecution Service in the new year, but will he consider a review that actually looks at the complex problems that lead to the fact that this vile practice continues to be widespread, although it is a criminal offence?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the number of times she has raised this issue in the House. Both the Minister with responsibility for victims and the Minister with responsibility for courts are looking specifically at this issue. As the hon. Lady is aware, there are complexities relating to stigmatising the individual who is themselves a victim, but we will continue to work on that and we look forward to working more closely with her on this subject.

Following the earlier exchange with the Minister for Women and Equalities on disability access, does she agree that one way we can improve access to this place is by Members underlining in the restoration and renewal consultation process, when they are approached, that improving disability access to this place is a priority for all of us?

That is an incredibly good suggestion. I have had discussions with Mr Speaker about the opportunities that the refurbishment of this Palace presents us with. I hope that all Members, who I know care deeply about these issues, with many having signed up to be Disability Confident employers and wanting to help that agenda, will see that that is another way in which we as individuals help to provide support.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:

Civil Liability Act 2018

Ivory Act 2018

Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Act 2018

Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2018

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018

University of London Act 2018

Ecumenical Relations Measure 2018

Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2018

Church Property Measure 2018

Church of England Pensions Measure 2018.