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Topical Questions

Volume 654: debated on Thursday 7 February 2019

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.

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.

T4. What advice would the Minister give to women, including my daughter, who recently signed a petition seeking to make smear tests routinely available to women under 25? (909078)

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.

T2. Many disabled people and pensioners rely on accessible Crown post offices, so will the Minister tell us what discussions Ministers in the Government Equalities Office have had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions about the equality impact of closing, privatising and relocating to WHSmith 41 post offices, including in Cambridge? (909076)

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.

T6. You are too kind, Mr Speaker. Essex County Council is preparing to close over a third of libraries in Essex, with three out of five libraries in deprived areas in Harlow at risk of closure. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the importance of free library services, particularly for the vulnerable and for equality in society and education? Will she talk to Essex County Council and keep our libraries open? (909080)

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.

T3. Will the Minister confirm that victims of caste-based discrimination will have full legal protection under the existing law, including if their legal grounds for such discrimination do not meet the Tirkey v. Chandok principles? (909077)

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have consulted on this and are acting on the basis of our legal advice and the enormous number 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.

T5. Ministers may have seen, as I did, the article by the actress Samantha Renke about how the lack of accessibility in housing adversely affects the ability to be independent. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of accessible housing, given that only 7% of properties currently have accessibility features? (909079)

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 to 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.

T7. Will the Minister indicate what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on improving access to flexible working to improve workplace equality? (909081)

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 be issuing guidance.

T8. Reporting on the gender pay gap has named and shamed companies into being proactive and closing that gap, but a recent study by the Food Standards Agency found that food insecurity rates were higher for women than men, so why will the Government not implement my Food Insecurity Bill and help to close the gender food gap? (909082)

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.