The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
HPV Vaccination for Boys: Catch-up Programme
It is the view of Public Health England that a catch-up vaccination programme for boys is not necessary, as evidence suggests that they are already benefiting from the indirect protection known as herd protection, which has been built up from the 10 years of the girls’ programme.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but the boys who will be vaccinated in the first cohort are at the same risk of HPV infection and related diseases as older boys who will not be eligible for the vaccination, and the Government are therefore missing an opportunity to protect more boys. The herd immunity the Minister spoke of does not apply to boys who may go on to have sex with men or with women who have not been vaccinated. Will the Minister therefore urge her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to reconsider this policy on equality grounds?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important question. There are additional programmes specifically for the groups that she mentioned. For example, a vaccination programme is being rolled out for men who have sex with men. Obviously the broad principle of the wider screening programme is to do the most good, and not to do any harm. That is the basis on which decisions are being made.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the roll-out of the HPV screening test for women? Does she agree that it will increase the number of people who are detected early and reduce the risk of women having cervical cancer?
Yes, and the roll-out has already had a considerable impact. The Department of Health and Social Care will keep these policies under review, but the programme has been an immense success.
Further to the 2018 Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendation for boys to be offered the vaccine, I have been in contact with the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss with him the push for the vaccine to be given throughout all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the healthcare systems in all four nations are in close discussion about all these things. They are driven by evidence and want to see evidence of what is going on in other nations. So yes, those conversations do take place. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to him on the specific point he raised.
I thank the Minister for what she said about providing the HPV vaccine for gay men on equality grounds. May I encourage her to keep an open mind to extending it to boys, on the same principle?
As I said, these decisions are taken on a clinical basis by people who are looking closely at the evidence, and they keep the policies under review.
Non-disclosure Agreements: Regulation
The Government share the concern that non-disclosure agreements have been used to hide workplace harassment and discrimination, or to intimidate victims into silence. That is clearly unacceptable. We will be consulting on measures to improve the regulation of non-disclosure agreements, including how best to ensure that workers understand their rights when they have signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Thanks to changes brought in by this Government, local authorities are subject to very limited scrutiny. A scan of responses to freedom of information requests shows that the use of NDAs in local authorities is prolific and out of control. Given that the Prime Minister’s planned consultation has yet to materialise, will the Minister confirm that the Government have no idea at all how widespread the use of NDAs is anywhere?
Non-disclosure agreements have a legitimate place in the workplace and can cover matters other than harassment or discrimination. For example, they have a legitimate use in the protection of trade secrets and when a settlement has been reached. As I have outlined, we will be consulting on the issue, and we are determined to make matters easier for workers.
We should be very clear that employment NDAs are being used to cover up lawbreaking. Maternity discrimination and sexual harassment are against the laws that this place has put on our statute books. Therefore, as well as considering the future of NDAs, will my hon. Friend consider the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? It should be enforcing our laws, but it has failed to use its extensive enforcement powers.
I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, for highlighting the issue; she is quite right. It is true that there has been a tailored review into the effectiveness and work of the EHRC, and the Secretary of State has met the commission. We are looking at its delivery and effectiveness, but we will welcome any suggestions from my right hon. Friend and her Committee.
Domestic Abuse Legislation and Immigration Status
The Home Office operates an immigration policy that supports women and children with insecure immigration status. Victims of domestic abuse who entered the UK as the partner of a British citizen, settled person or person with refugee status are eligible to apply for settlement in their own right. Those who are destitute can also apply for crisis support under the destitute domestic violence concession. We are funding a project conducted by Southall Black Sisters to pilot support for women and children who are victims in these circumstances.
If the system is so effective, why does the Ubuntu women’s shelter in my constituency have to be the first charity in the UK to provide short-term accommodation for women with no recourse to public funds? Fleeing gender-based and domestic violence, they are denied access to homelessness, social security and housing support. These are non-EEA women with limited leave to remain. Women who have settled status or leave to remain face delays in processing their status. Any situation where women fleeing domestic violence, torture or persecution have no recourse to public funds is unacceptable. Does the Minister agree, and what is she going to do about it?
I would ask the hon. Gentleman to advise those working in the refuge to help the women he describes in seeking the destitute domestic violence concession. The point of that concession is to provide immediate crisis support to women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, giving them three months’ leave to remain so that they can find new homes and reflect on their situation, and also have access to public funds.
As the Home Affairs Committee, we have expressed concern that the police, having helped an individual who is a survivor of domestic abuse, are then sharing their details with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control. This has a chilling effect on the likelihood of reporting abuse. Will the Minister give an assurance that when the domestic abuse Bill has made its way through this place, the only thing that will matter is a woman’s welfare, not their immigration status?
In those circumstances, the response of the state is always led by the needs of the victim. We must be careful to recognise that the immigration system operates in and of its own right. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to help women in these desperate circumstances by giving them a three-month break period to seek help and build a future for themselves and for their children, if appropriate.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that police forces are not sharing information on victims of domestic abuse with the Home Office for immigration purposes?
This is where there is a tension between the immigration system and the needs of victims of domestic abuse. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to give those women three months’ leave to remain and recourse to public funds. But we must be clear that people who do not enjoy settled status in the UK must not have recourse to public funds in the same way that a British citizen would expect.
Support for domestic violence victims is devolved to different tiers of government right across the United Kingdom. What is my hon. Friend doing to support different levels of government to make sure that victims get consistent support across our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that we are seeking to address through the domestic abuse Bill with the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner. I am very grateful to my colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who are in the process of conducting a review of services nationally. The role of the commissioner will be to hold local and national Government, and stakeholders, to account as to the provision of services in areas across the country so that there is no possibility of a postcode lottery.
A constituent from Larkhall suffers psychological, emotional and financial abuse from her husband, with whom she ran a business for seven years in the UK. She held a spousal visa. Due to the length of time it took to be approved for indefinite leave to remain, she had a choice to remain in that marriage or to leave the UK. This was due to Home Office bureaucracy. Does the Minister accept that the Home Office needs to be sensitive to cases such as that?
I do; I hope the hon. Lady understands that I cannot comment on a particular case at the Dispatch Box, but that is why we have the destitute domestic violence concession—to give immediate crisis support to victims of domestic abuse whose residency status depends on the partner who may well be abusing them.
The Women’s Aid “No Woman Turned Away” project can only find refuge accommodation for fewer than one in 10 women who have no recourse to public funds. The Government’s proposed measures in the draft domestic abuse Bill are not good enough for migrant women. Can the Minister offer assurances that more will be done to ensure that migrant women can have full and equal access to specialist services?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Only last week, when I visited a domestic abuse refuge in the area around Preston in Lancashire, I heard for myself the particular needs of women in the area who have no recourse to public funds. The Bill’s purpose is to provide a statutory definition and so on, to help all victims of abuse, regardless of their immigration status, but of course this matter may well be scrutinised by the pre-legislative Joint Committee of both Houses. We very much welcome that.
Female Firefighters: Fire Station Facilities
We all enormously value the work of women and men employed by fire and rescue authorities who work to protect their communities. It is unacceptable that outdated practices exist such as shower facilities being unavailable to female firefighters. My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has been clear that we look to the National Fire Chiefs Council and local fire and rescue service leaders to address those concerns.
To quote former firefighter Lucy Masoud:
“I remember my first fire station. There was a tiny cramped dorm with three beds though it was meant for one. There was a massive dorm for the guys, yet we were stuffed in like sardines.”
At other stations, female firefighters had to sleep on the floor. A “solution” is proposed of having gender-neutral dorms, toilets and washing facilities, which is overwhelmingly opposed and could cause women to leave the service. Will the Minister agree to demand audits at fire stations across the country related to facilities for female firefighters?
The hon. Lady knows that 14 fire services were recently inspected by Her Majesty’s inspectorate, and that of the 14, two were found not to have adequate shower facilities for female firefighters—Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. I name them, and I very much expect that they will improve their services. We know that there are issues with sleeping accommodation, too.
I would, however, note that although the Fire Brigades Union does sterling work for its members, it is a very great shame that its executive council has not yet managed to appoint a woman to put forward the views of female firefighters in a national and consistent way. I hope that it will put pressure on fire chiefs and others to ensure that they do better by their female firefighters.
In addition to working with the Home Office to ensure that there are better facilities, what steps is the Minister taking to encourage more women to take up a career in firefighting?
I am so grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this subject, because women are just as capable as men at firefighting. I hope that we at some point see a revised version of Fireman Sam, because we know from social media campaigns that children grow up expecting firefighters to be male, which limits their expectations and perhaps cuts their career opportunities as they go through school and into training. The message from this Government is very clear: we absolutely welcome female firefighters, and we will work with Women in the Fire Service to ensure that we get more women helping to protect our communities.
As a former member of the national fire service management committee of the Local Government Association, it has been a pleasure for me to see how the culture in the fire service has changed over recent years, but there is still a need to tackle the perception that being a firefighter is a job for a man. Will the Minister therefore welcome the efforts being made by fire authorities such as Devon and Somerset and the West Midlands to promote the message strongly that it is a job that anyone can do?
Very much so—I welcome the work of the fire authorities that my hon. Friend mentioned. I note that we have five fire and rescue services headed by women, including, of course, here in London, where Dany Cotton has had to deal with extraordinary events in her tenure as chief. That, I hope, is another piece in the jigsaw of evidence that proves that women can be just as good at fighting fires as men.
I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given thus far. Clearly, in order to encourage young women to take up the opportunities of firefighting, there need to be role models. What action is she taking to encourage female firefighters employed right now to act as role models to encourage others to follow?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I say, the organisation Women in the Fire Service does great work at local level in encouraging women to join the fire service. Again, as role models, we have the five women we know are heading fire and rescue services currently—of course, of the 45 fire and rescue services in England and the three fire and rescue services in Wales, that is a tiny fraction, but they are very positive role models. I also hope that the Fire Brigades Union will manage to bring a woman on to its executive council in the future. It is through that sort of positive work that we will get women into these services.
Workplace Equality: Flexible Working
Flexible working is crucial to support women and men in balancing work and caring responsibilities. That is why the Government Equalities Office is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the flexible working taskforce in using our research programmes to develop evidence-based guidance for employers.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the right to request flexible working is not the same as an entitlement to work flexibly. Given that so many of these requests are refused and that the Government have said that they want to encourage flexible working, will they consider placing a duty on employers to advertise jobs as flexible?
We have announced our intention to consult on these very matters, but I would also say that, as that will take a little while, employers should not wait for it. We know that by offering flexible working they are going to have a bigger pool of talent from which to pick their employees.
Shared parental leave is as much about cultural change as it is about legislation. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help parents better understand and access shared parental leave?
We are doing a huge amount of work to look at what additional obstacles there might be, such as the bureaucracy in accessing provision, and we are also looking at the experience of those who have taken up and made use of shared parental leave. It is incredibly important that we change the culture and it will take time, but there are still some further things we can do to encourage that, and we are looking at them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is some great work out there: 97% of businesses offer some form of flexible working—to tie this back to the original question—but only 68% of employees for whom that situation is available are taking up this option. I think this is changing, but there are further things we can do to encourage it. Sharing good practice is one of those things, and I think the charters have played a good role in that.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising another example of good practice out there. I absolutely would encourage that. It is only by sharing good practice that we are going to be able to encourage employers that are not doing that to raise their game.
Apprenticeships and Work: Fair Access
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and we are as one in thinking that apprenticeships can be a powerful force for social mobility. We want the advantages of apprenticeships to be available to all, and I am in regular contact with my ministerial colleagues. For the smallest employers we meet 100% of the costs of apprenticeship training for apprentices aged 16 to 18, 19 to 24-year-old care leavers, and 19 to 24-year-olds with an education health and care plan. As my right hon. Friend knows, and indeed welcomed, last year we introduced a £1,000 bursary for care leavers who are starting an apprenticeship, to support them as they transition into training.
Unless I am much mistaken the Minister has just elevated the hon. Gentleman to membership of the Privy Council, for which I am sure he will want to thank her. Who knows? It may be a straw in the wind.
Mr Speaker, I was very honoured to be made a member of the Privy Council after the 2015 election.
That is why I said “unless I am much mistaken”. I am sorry that I had not noticed the right hon. Gentleman’s status, and three years late, may I congratulate him?
Mr Speaker, you did call me right honourable yesterday during questions to the Prime Minister.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming to Harlow this afternoon to see Harlow College, which is one of the finest colleges in England? Will she consider using the apprenticeship levy to provide an apprentice premium and transport costs for disadvantaged young people, so that they can climb up the apprentice ladder of opportunity?
My right hon. Friend is frequently right, and most definitely honourable. Targeted financial support is available for young apprentices and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the care leaver bursary. The Department for Transport is introducing a railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds this year, and we continue to work together on further options. I am very much looking forward to visiting Harlow College later today.
Can the Minister explain how a young person under the age of 19 from a low-income family, who works 35 hours a week on the minimum wage earning £3.50 an hour on an apprenticeship scheme—less than £122.50 a week—and who is barely able to pay for their own meals, travel, and basic work garments, can be classed as being “employed” by this Government?
I point out to the hon. Lady that we take the advice of the Low Pay Commission on wages for apprentices, and that rate will be going up. I have spoken about the targeted support available, and whenever I meet apprentices I ask them about their wages and how they travel to work. We are very aware of some of the problems faced by those young people, and as I have said, the railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds is available, and colleges have discretionary bursaries to support them.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 9MC.]
I am pleased to announce that organisations supporting people who have been out of work due to caring responsibilities and have additional barriers to returning to work can apply for a new £500,000 fund from the Government Equalities Office. More widely, the GEO is liaising with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support people with little or no work history in the five integration areas. That funding is in addition to the £1.5 million fund launched last year, which will help us to gather evidence of good practice, and reflects the GEO’s absolute commitment to ensuring that all women realise their full potential.
Will the Minister challenge businesses that exclude guide dogs?
Under the auspices of the Office for Disability Issues, and subsequently the assistance dog sector, all those fantastic organisations and charities have come together to harmonise their standards, so that the owner of a café or pub, or a taxi driver, can identify legitimate assistance dogs more easily. There is absolutely no excuse for excluding people who have assistance dogs. We are considering what further measures we can introduce to ensure that that can be enforced, and in particular whether the rules on licensing of venues and premises can help with that issue. The Home Office is setting out its plans for a formal consultation with disabled people’s organisations and other representative groups in due course.
This week I had a phone call with regard to a young man who tried to commit suicide and a mother who felt that she did not want to burden her children any more, all because of the Windrush scandal. They say that to educate a woman is to educate a nation; therefore, to humiliate a woman is to humiliate a nation. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will provide urgent and necessary help, support and assistance to women and vulnerable people affected by the Windrush scandal?
May I again set out the Government’s apology to those who have suffered through this terrible incident and reflect on the fact that this was not just one Government who got it wrong, but many Governments of all political colours? I welcome the fact that colleagues across the House are bringing individual constituency cases to our attention. We can then feed them into the system that has been set up so that we can provide help and support. The hon. Lady must, of course, let us know of any cases she wishes to raise, but the Government must learn from mistakes, which was why we set up the review. We are pleased that more than 4,000 people have been helped through the scheme—not just Windrush victims, but people from other countries. It is very much a work in progress, but we welcome Members across the House continuing to raise these issues in the Chamber.
My answer will be similar to that which I gave to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on Question 1. Clinical decisions are taken with regard to age range, but whatever age is set, there will always be people who fall outside it—in this case those younger than 25. What is critical is that people know what is normal for them and what symptoms they should be worried about. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has responsibility for women’s health issues and inequalities, is doing great work with her new taskforce on women’s health to identify what a safe period looks like and examine issues such as menopause so that women and girls everywhere really understand when they should be concerned about something and seek help.
I would first like to point out that our franchise programme with the Post Office is not a closure programme, but a sustainability programme. On the franchising with WHSmith for the 41 post offices that the hon. Gentleman refers to, accessibility is key to the delivery of our 11,500 network of post offices in the UK. I personally make sure that that is covered when any new post office branch is being worked on.
We will hear from the right hon. Gentleman again—I call Mr Robert Halfon.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and effective library service. Libraries are clearly more than a repository for books. They can be community hubs through which services can be provided. I encourage my right hon. Friend to respond to the county council’s ongoing library consultation so that we can connect organisations in his community that could be able to ensure that services are not just maintained, but made better.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have consulted on this and are acting on the basis of our legal advice and the enormous amount of responses to that consultation. We have confidence that those protections are there for individuals, but we also want to ensure that people understand those protections really well. We will therefore issue guidance and consult groups on its production.
I warmly welcome the publication of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill. Will the Minister provide assurance about what the domestic abuse commissioner will do to share best practice across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on this issue for his constituents. The Bill will introduce a domestic abuse commissioner, whose sole focus will be on tackling domestic abuse and holding local and national Government to account to ensure that services are provided well and consistently across the country, thereby helping all the 2 million people who we know are victims of these terrible crimes.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to all the work that Sam has done. Many hon. Members will have met her; she has been into Parliament to raise the profile of this issue. The hub—based on the Olympic park—is looking at good design. It has set a challenge to demonstrate that we can build accessible homes for no more cost and with no greater footprint than other homes that are being built. We know that this is possible and we need to do much more to ensure that developers are following the good design guidelines and that we are making housing stock across the country more flexible.
Last week, we saw the first conviction in UK courts for female genital mutilation—a landmark, albeit an awful one, in the campaign to end this abhorrent practice. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to end FGM in this country and around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Indeed, yesterday, I was with the Vavengers, a community group that is doing a tremendous amount in the UK to raise awareness of this issue and tackle it. We are absolutely committed to ending this practice globally by 2030. Both my Departments—the Government Equalities Office and the Department for International Development—are doing a tremendous amount. The advice that our team in Ghana gave was critical to the conviction to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a cross-Government effort and our ability not just to assist the many thousands of girls who are at risk in the UK, but to support the Africa-led movement to end the practice, is a good thing.
I have frequent discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We are doing further consultative work, but my message to business is, “Don’t wait for that.” An exemplar of flexible working is our civil service, which offers flexible working from day one. As a consequence, it has a wider pool of people to pick from. So do not wait for us, but we are going to do some further things.
Further to the earlier question about caste, can my right hon. Friend confirm that she still intends to introduce legislation to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010?
I thank my hon. Friend for his consistency on this issue. Yes, it is, and my timetable has not changed since the last time he asked the question. In addition, as I said earlier, we will also be issuing guidance.
On the gender pay gap, I have had discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission about how we can ensure that the requirement to report is enforced, but I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the shift we have seen in the GEO. As well as all the things we are known for—women on boards, looking at the FTSE 350—we need to look at women at the other end of the socioeconomic scale. In April, we will bring forward a new cross-Government economic empowerment strategy for women that will consider women who are trapped in low pay, often for decades, and what we can do together to raise their incomes.
One barrier to accessing skills, training and apprenticeships is sometimes just knowledge of them in the first place. What more does my right hon. Friend believe that we can do to help to spread the word so that more people across our country can access those opportunities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is about understanding the possibilities. We are running two projects: the 5 Cities project is aimed at increasing the diversity of those seeking apprenticeships; and the other one works with young people in more disadvantaged areas to make sure that they have the opportunity to get into higher-paid professions that they would not normally consider. We therefore are doing more, and it must not be forgotten either that an apprenticeship is a paid job—it is a job primarily. We are encouraging employers to advertise vacancies and embedding apprenticeships in all the careers advice we give to young people.
Order. I apologise to disappointed remaining colleagues. This part of Question Time was scheduled to run for seven minutes, and I have run it for 15. I say as gently as possible to the Ministers that, although we appreciate their comprehensive replies, some of their answers were incredibly long, and as a result colleagues have lost out. I extend the envelope, but I cannot do so indefinitely, and we must now move on.