Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Shared Parental Leave Uptake

In 2018, we ran a successful £1.5 million campaign to promote awareness and take-up of shared parental leave. Last month, we launched a further campaign to maintain the high level of awareness achieved. We are currently evaluating the scheme, looking at take-up and the barriers to take-up, and we expect to publish the findings later this year.

I thank the Minister for that response. Since becoming an MP, I have taken a real interest in the close links between Scotland and the Nordic countries. At the Nordic Co-operation conference this week, the Swedish Government said that they wanted to re-emphasise their commitment to sharing care, saying that parental leave was good not just for women, but for the health and wellbeing of men. What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government to support further progress on this approach?

I quite agree, and this Government are committed to delivering the take-up of shared parental leave. We know that it is good for employers, for the family and for employees. The scheme has been in place since 2015. We are evaluating it, and we will continue to consult with all partners on how we can increase take-up.

Will the Minister give a timescale for the extension of shared parental leave to the self-employed?

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I outlined in my last response, we are currently evaluating the scheme, which we are committed to delivering, as I have already said. However, in relation to self-employed people, I must point out that one of the benefits of implementing shared parental leave in the first place is that some people who are employed do not have the flexibility of the self-employed. Obviously, we are not ruling anything out, and we will continue to keep our policies under review. As I say, we will respond on the outcomes of our evaluation later on.

In the future, we will look back at the inequality of parental leave between fathers and mothers, and wonder how on earth we thought it was okay for it to be like that. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to rebalance parental leave between men and women—fathers and mothers—so that parents get equal opportunities to spend time with their children and pursue their careers?

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that both parents are able to spend quality time with their children, particularly in their first year. I would like to highlight to my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reported that, in 2017-18, 9,200 employees took up the scheme, of whom 80% were men.

No. We want to encourage further take-up. Currently, the take-up is between 2% and 8%, which is in line with our prediction. A figure of 80% is a good start, but I want to see more mothers and more fathers taking advantage of this shared parental leave policy.

With take-up of shared parental leave at 2%, it is clearly not working for families across the UK. If we are serious about closing the gender pay gap and tackling maternity discrimination, the Government must increase statutory paid leave for new fathers. Will the Minister confirm that as part of her ongoing review, she will consider extending statutory paid leave to four weeks, to incentivise fathers to take it up?

In reality, we are looking for a wider culture change. Other countries that implemented such schemes decades ago are still working to increase take-up of shared parental leave. We are committed to looking at what the barriers are, and at why people are not taking up such schemes. When we have that evidence base, we will tweak our policies to ensure that more people are able to take up those schemes.

It is very good of the hon. Member for Banbury to drop in on us, and we welcome her to the Chamber. I hope that she has fully recovered her breath, after what must have been an arduous excursion from wherever she was to the Chamber, and that she is now ready to deliver her question, which we await with bated breath.

I cannot thank you enough for calling me, Mr Speaker, because this is a very important issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the research programme announced in September 2018 on gender equality in the workplace, and particularly on parental responsibilities? I know it is an evidence-based research programme, and we are all awaiting its results.

The research programme into the workplace and gender equality will invest £1.1 million in academic research over two years. So far that programme has commissioned an evidence-based review of family-friendly policies and women’s progression, as well as considering how parents share caring for their children, and what motivates employers to improve their offer of shared parental leave. That programme will be based on evidence and advice from employers regarding how we can improve those family-friendly policies.

Highly Paid Professions: Girls and Women

2. If she will meet the Children’s Commissioner and the Ofsted Chief Inspector to discuss barriers to girls and women entering highly paid professions. (909784)

My colleagues in the Department for Education regularly meet Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner, and I will ask them to raise that matter at their next meeting. It is critical to get more women into professions where they are under-represented, not least because that will help close the gender pay gap.

The Minister knows the information and data that those two organisations hold on the fact that so many bright girls are diverted early on away from science and maths, and away from other subjects that have a clear link with progression to high management. Surely that is criminal, and we should do something about it on an all-party basis.

I think the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss this issue again. He is right, and this is an issue on which Members across the House will agree. Progress has been made, including a clear increase in girls choosing those subjects, which shows that effort does pay off, but there are still too few such cases, and we must not let up in our work to encourage women to have such choices and to go forward in those professions.

Women who enter high-paid professions face blatant discrimination—40% experience sexual harassment, 50,000 women a year feel forced to leave their jobs because they are pregnant, and organisations such as the BBC feel that it is okay for them to break the law by paying men and women differently for the same job. Why is there no mention of enforcing antidiscrimination law in the Government’s “Good Work Plan”, which is their employment strategy? Surely that should be at the heart of what they are doing.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is consulting on that matter. My right hon. Friend mentioned a list of issues, and it is important to track the impact that policies are having on women and their choices. We will produce measures and metrics to sit alongside the strategy that the Government Equalities Office will produce on women’s economic empowerment, so that we can all see how we are doing.

On 20 February I raised concerns with the Ofsted Chief Inspector that some schools are not following new safeguarding guidance on peer-on-peer sexual abuse, but at best, the Chief Inspector’s response required improvement. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can enforce safeguarding in schools?e

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is a very serious matter indeed. I will certainly ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Education to meet her, and I will also follow up.

We should accentuate the positive. Last year, 68.8% of those accepted on law undergraduate courses were women. The future for law in this country is bright. Does the Minister agree?

Every human endeavour depends for its success on women’s involvement, so, yes, I am pleased about progress, but more needs to be done.

Further to the question asked by the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), one of the barriers to women holding highly paid positions is maternity discrimination. What further steps will the Government take to tackle this issue?

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading on a number of pieces of work. The women’s economic empowerment strategy is considering all these policies in the round to look at what more we can do to ensure that women are supported and treated fairly, and can have full careers. It will be published later this spring.

Differential Gender-based Pricing

3. If she will make an assessment of the potential merits of prohibiting the differential pricing of products and services that are (a) intended for and (b) marketed towards specific genders. (909785)

Although I share concerns on this issue, prices in the UK are set by competition, not by the Government. As intelligent questioning consumers, women should not be afraid to challenge retailers or manufacturers who are trying to rip us off and, where we are not satisfied, to vote with our purchasing decisions. The Government stand ready to back up any woman who wants to do that.

I thank the Minister for her comments. Research shows that women pay more than men for basic products 42% of the time. Manufacturers claim that this is competition or that more is involved in producing women’s products. Scientists tell us that that is nonsense: we all have the same hair and skin types. Given what she has said about women standing up, will the Minister back my Bill on the pink tax, which is currently going through Parliament, or help to encourage manufacturers and retailers to do away with what is a sexist and outdated practice?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her private Member’s Bill. The Government will not be supporting it, but we welcome the focus she is bringing to this important issue. In the 21st century, things like social media will help to get the message out to manufacturers and businesses that they simply cannot rip women off. The work uncovered on Friday in the Rose review of access to finance, which female entrepreneurs are sadly not getting at the moment, is precisely why the Government are looking to help female entrepreneurs to set up businesses that will not rip women off.

I regret to say that I do not have that list to hand at the moment, not least because I was preparing answers on the pink charge on female products, but I will endeavour to write to my hon. Friend with a list. I know the work he has done on this vital topic. I am sure that, like me, he was delighted at the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that we will be providing free sanitary products to secondary schools.

As the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) will be of wider interest, it might be of service to the House if the hon. Lady places a copy of her reply in the Library.

I am delighted to hear the Minister’s commitment to supporting women who wish to take the matter of the pink tax to task. As it happens, we are in the process of establishing an all-party group concerning the beauty industry. I would welcome the Minister joining the group, so she could, alongside me and colleagues, encourage companies to look at the pink tax. It seems an irony, given that women’s earning potential is less than men’s. We really should be looking at this issue far more closely.

I am extremely grateful, as always, to the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. Sadly, I am not sure that, as a Minister, I am allowed to join an all-party group, but I very much look forward to learning from its work. Of course, if it ever wished to invite me to a meeting, I would be happy to accept the invitation.

Period Poverty

I am convening a new taskforce of experts from all sectors to ensure that we end period poverty in the UK. The taskforce will build on good work already being done and recent announcements of funding for sanitary protection in schools and hospitals.

I applaud the Secretary of State for the great work that we are doing in this area in the UK, but we must remember that it is also really important to tackle period poverty abroad, where sometimes women have even more serious problems than we have here.

I absolutely agree. That is why we have also launched a new campaign to step up international action to end period poverty globally by 2030, in line with the global goals. This will be kick-started by £2 million of funding for small and medium-sized charities working in the Department for International Development’s priority countries. We are building on our existing international work, because obviously this is embedded in all our education work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Like me, does she look forward with ever-increasing excitement to the day when we finally leave the EU and can set our own VAT rates on all products, including tampons, and end this injustice forever?

I absolutely agree. The Government strongly believe that VAT should not apply to these products. That is why we took the initiative in 2016 to introduce legislation to enable a zero rate to take effect as soon as possible. In the meantime, we currently apply the lowest rate that we can—5%—to these products.

I welcome the announcement this week, but has the Minister considered the provision of sanitary products in the workplace, perhaps starting with her Ministry or here in Parliament?

Yes, we have. I am sure that all Members across the House will welcome the recent announcements on schools, hospitals and colleges, but we want to look at the issue in the round. That is the job of the taskforce, and it will be about Departments, the private sector and the third sector coming together to create ways to sort this for any woman or girl who may find herself in that situation. On other issues such as primary schools, workplace settings and so forth, the taskforce is looking at all those, but I am also interested in ideas that hon. Members have, because I know that there are many great schemes out there in their constituencies.

I thank Amika George, the Red Box Project, the British Medical Association, the Communication Workers Union, Girlguiding UK, Plan International, Bloody Good Period, Beauty Banks, On The Ball, Hey Girls, Bloody Big Brunch, my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) and for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), and Monica Lennon, the Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, who helped with the policy on period poverty. I thank the Secretary of State and the Chancellor for the announcement yesterday. I am really pleased to hear that there will be a taskforce, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State would like to work with me and Monica Lennon so that we can make sure that refugee and homeless shelters all have free menstruation products.

Absolutely. This is an issue that can unite the whole House, and we need such issues, especially at times like this. When I launched this, I also paid tribute to many organisations, including those that the hon. Lady mentions, for the fantastic work that they are doing. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. There is great, sustainable work out there, and we want to take those ideas, help them scale up and ensure that we can end this issue for good.

As always, I want to help colleagues with important questions, but we are up against it, so I will take the next question and possibly one after, but they have to be one-sentence questions, and nothing more—we do not have time.

Public Spending: Disabled People

6. What assessment the Government has made of the cumulative effect on disabled people of recent changes to public spending. (909788)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—I am sorry that she is not in her place today and that the sector will be disappointed that it has lost a good Minister. We need to take into account the impact not just of our policies, but of the policies of other areas, such as local government.

Disabled people have been absolutely hammered by this Government, with cuts of £4.8 billion in social security alone, so why was there absolutely nothing in the spring statement yesterday for disabled people, who are at the end of their tether? And please do not say that it was not a fiscal event, because there were spending commitments made yesterday.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been continuing to do the work that was outlined in the health and work review 12 months or more ago and is making progress. The Department is considering how we can ensure not only that the welfare system works better in supporting disabled people, but that it dovetails with other schemes such as Access to Work. I shall make sure that the Department is aware of the specifics to which the hon. Lady refers.

What has happened to total spending on disability benefits since 2010, and what has happened to the employment and unemployment rates for disabled people?

Members will know the figures well. The amount currently spent on disabled people and those with health conditions is £50 billion. We are closing the disability employment gap, but there is still much more to do. One of the things that the Department has been doing well is looking at this in the round, along with other issues such as accessibility. We need to support disabled people in relation to every aspect of their lives and every ambition that they have.

Pension Age: Women Born in the 1950s

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909789)

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909793)

11. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909794)

The state pension age reform is focused on maintaining the right balance between sustainability of the state pension and fairness between generations in the face of demographic change. Without equalisation, women would be expected to spend an average of more than 40% of their adult lives receiving the state pension.

I should declare an interest: I am a WASPI woman myself, having been born in the 1950s. Many of my friends, neighbours and constituents have been hit hard by changes in their pension arrangements that are forcing them to work for an additional five years beyond their planned retirement date. Does the Minister agree that women who have set aside careers to care for families, unpaid, for many years should not be treated in the same way as men who have been able to pursue their careers unencumbered? Equality is not always achieved by treating men and women in the same way.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. It has been well debated, and additional transitional arrangements have been introduced. One development that we should all welcome is that since 1994, the rate of pensioner poverty has fallen faster for females than for males.

There are many 1950s-born women in my constituency—I, too, should declare an interest, as a 1950s-born woman myself—who are facing real financial hardship because of the pension changes. What steps are the Government taking to relieve their difficulties?

That is exactly why we have continued to deliver the triple lock. We recently announced a £3 billion uprating, and 80% of women reaching state pension age before 2030 will be better off by an average of £550 a year under the new arrangements.

Do the Government accept that the DWP’s communication strategy was well below standard, and many women found out about changes in their pensions only a year—or even a few months—before those changes were made?

That, too, is an issue that has been debated extensively in a number of Parliaments, and it has been encountered by Governments of all political persuasions. On our watch, we redoubled efforts to ensure that there was the maximum amount of communication so that people could make informed decisions.

Topical Questions

This is LBT women’s health week. We know that lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are less likely to participate in services such as cancer screening, which means that they face a wide range of health inequalities. That must stop. As part of our LGBT action plan, we will shortly announce the appointment of a national LGBT health adviser to help to improve the delivery of healthcare services for LGBT people. We will also announce the membership of the new LGBT advisory panel before the first conference, which will take place next week.

Will the Minister support calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), other Scottish National party Members and women’s advocacy groups for the introduction of separate payments of universal credit to protect victims of domestic violence and financial coercion?

The hon. Gentleman raises important issues that are being considered by both my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and our colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, and the new Secretary of State is particularly attuned to them. I will ask Ministers to write to the hon. Gentleman to update him, and I will pass on his concerns today.

T4. In my constituency, the sex worker outreach project run by the admirable Nelson Trust is doing really good work to help women to come off the streets and lead very different lives. What support can the Government provide to help these kinds of community services? Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing the number of women in prison on short sentences would help this kind of rehabilitation? (909824)

I recall the visit that I made with my hon. Friend to see how his local community was looking after vulnerable people in Gloucester. We believe that people who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out, and this is why we are spending more than £2 million across the Government to support prostitutes and sex workers who are at risk of abuse and exploitation. Indeed, we have a piece of work at the moment involving ongoing research conducted by the University of Bristol into what prostitution in the 21st century looks like, precisely so that we can address the issues that that research identifies.

The primary victims of religiously motivated attacks are women, but how can the Government reassure Muslim women that they are serious about tackling Islamophobia when they choose to ignore and shut down the voices of the British Muslims in their own party who are calling for an independent inquiry into institutional Islamophobia? Speaking as a British Muslim, I believe that it is disgraceful and patronising that the Conservative party continues to refuse to act and tells British Muslims in the party that there is not a problem. Will the Minister at least accept that her party has a problem?

The Conservative party took immediate action to suspend 14 members who put issues in, so we are not going to take any lectures from a party that refuses to suspend people or throw them out of the party for antisemitism.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend set out the legislative timetable for removing caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010? (909826)

We are proceeding with this as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle is available. However, I can update my hon. Friend and tell him that the guidance that we promised to publish alongside it has now been produced. It is there to help employers, service providers and individuals to understand the context of the Equality Act, and it is going out for consultation with stakeholders this week.

T2. Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, is doing excellent work in our region to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and breast cancer. What steps is the Minister taking to increase awareness of the health risks associated with alcohol that apply to women? (909822)

That is a really excellent question. The Government are investing an extra £16 billion in that sort of primary care and prevention to make sure that we have the public health investment that helps people to tackle alcoholism and ensures that women get the breast cancer support that they need. Today, we have released a written ministerial statement responding to the inquiry on breast cancer screening.

T7. The Alison Rose review of female entrepreneurship highlights the fact that £250 billion of untapped potential is lost to the sector because it is not taken seriously enough. Does my hon. Friend agree that businesses, especially banks, should be urged to take a much more inclusive approach to female entrepreneurs? (909827)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked this question, as it gives me an opportunity to thank Alison Rose for her review, which tries to ensure that the business landscape is as fair for women as it is for men. It is a shocking fact that women’s average starting capital is 50% less than that of men. I was at a fantastic reception at No. 10 last week, where there was a room full of female entrepreneurs, some of whom were world-leading entrepreneurs. We have fantastically talented, capable and creative female entrepreneurs in this country, and we absolutely must support them. We must ensure that businesses, banks, venture capitalists and angel investors are all doing their bit to help these women.

T3. What steps are being taken to ensure that non-disclosure agreements are not used to cover up discrimination and harassment? (909823)

We have launched a consultation on the use of NDAs and have proposed to make it explicit that NDAs should not prevent individuals from reporting any kind of harassment, sexual or otherwise, to the police. I hope that that answers her question.

May I ask the Minister for Women and Equalities whether some MPs are more equal than others? Back Benchers—the poor bloody infantry—have to traipse through the Lobby for every three-line Whip, but Cabinet Ministers can sit brazenly on the Front Bench and then slope off in their limousines after betraying the people and the Prime Minister.

All the Ministers on the Front Bench this morning are here and ready for their duties, in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who was ironing his shirt 20 minutes before this session started. We are in turbulent times, but we must trust our institutions and trust in democracy. I am also the Secretary of State for International Development, and I will take messy democracy over any other system in the world.

I am a tad taken aback that the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) feels it necessary to disclose to his ministerial boss his personal habits in relation to such matters, but there we go.

T5. Yesterday, I was delighted to welcome to Parliament the Tea in the Pot women’s support service, and many of its staff are 1950s-born women. Will there be an equality impact assessment regarding the effect of recent pension credit changes on 1950s-born women? Will the impact on pensioner poverty also be measured? (909825)

There has been an impact assessment all the way through. If the hon. Gentleman highlights a good group, I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for pensions would be delighted to meet its representatives.

I urge the Government to work with NHS England to provide support to women GPs who have left the workforce but want to return after caring responsibilities. They should be supported to return to practice so that patients can get the benefits of their skills and experience.

My right hon. Friend is right. As well as having more GPs in training than ever before, we need to attract GPs who have left the workforce back into work. In March 2017, we launched a major “return to practice” campaign that aimed to attract 500 GPs. So far, 263 have completed the scheme, and a further 266 are in train.

T8. Hundreds of WASPI women from across the country were in Parliament yesterday to protest at the spring statement, and they would like to know why the Government have not considered a special compensation scheme for women who have suffered severe detriment following the state pension change because they were never told about it in the first place. (909828)

As has been extensively covered in several debates, we have allocated an additional £1.1 billion of transitional support. The recent uprating order included an additional £3 billion to support the uprating of the state pension, and we will continue to support pensioners of all genders.

What measures could be included in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure that parental responsibility does not override restraining orders, especially when partners have been convicted of coercive behaviour?

My hon. Friend raised a constituency case during the International Women’s Day debate last week, and we want the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to support both the victims of the many forms that such abuse can take and the children who live in abusive households. I urge my hon. Friend to write to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is scrutinising the Bill, to make her point.

As the Minister for Women and Equalities knows, the estimated 18% gender pay gap is likely to grow following Brexit as women in public services and retail are disproportionately affected. Does she accept that the women who voted to leave did not vote to leave themselves worse off and that they deserve a final-say referendum on the exit deal?

No. We do not want a second referendum, which would be disastrous. We are doing specific work in those sectors to close the gender pay gap. However, I caution that some companies that are doing the right thing will see their pay gaps widen because they may be recruiting many more young women, so we must look at the figures in detail to see that good progress is being made.

I know that Ministers on the Treasury Bench wish to examine in great detail the work of the Women and Equalities Committee when we issue our reports, but could the Secretary of State perhaps explain to me why it has taken five months for the Government to respond to our very important report on sexual harassment in public places? This issue needs urgent action, not more deliberation.

I am sorry that we have taken a long time over responding to the work of the Select Committee. I would rather publish a response that will actually take the right action than put out something swiftly that is not going to do the job. I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand that we want to be doing things that ensure we address the issues she has raised.

Mr Bradshaw, you are a curious fellow. You were standing up a moment ago. [Interruption.] Very well. We will take one more.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities join me in condemning the wording of letter ESA65B from the Department for Work and Pensions—the letter asks general practitioners to cease issuing fit notes to people with disabilities awaiting an appeal for employment and support allowance—and help ensure that such blatant discrimination against disabled people, which resulted in the death of my constituent who was forced back to work against his doctor’s advice, will cease immediately?

It is critical that welfare and healthcare work absolutely together if we are to support people. If the hon. Lady would like to share the details with me, I will certainly get a response from the Department for Work and Pensions.