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Topical Questions

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

It is incredibly important to provide support and a route back to work for people who have taken time out to care for others, and we want to find out the most effective way of doing so. Today, I am announcing that, as part of our returners programme, we are awarding grants to the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation; to One Ark in Liverpool; to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for projects in Yorkshire and Humber; and to Carer Support Wiltshire. These grants will be used for a number of initiatives to make it easier for people to return to the labour market and to discover how best to keep people economically active.

The housing association Habinteg recently launched a new advisory group for disabled people. The group has highlighted the impact that not having an accessible home has on people’s employment, health and wellbeing. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the group to discuss their real concerns?

There is no excuse for new build homes especially not to be accessible. The Global Disability Innovation Hub set a challenge and has demonstrated that accessible homes can be built with no greater footprint and at no greater cost, so there is no excuse for local authorities not to do so. I would be happy to meet those representatives, and will suggest that to the Minister for Disabled People, too.

T2. The Government have embarked on a significant programme of improvements to the transport system. Will they use their position in the public procurement process to support efforts to get more women working in construction, engineering and the railways? (910548)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, and the Government take these issues very seriously. For example, our apprenticeship diversity champions network is working in partnership with employers to help to overcome gender stereotypes in sectors such as science, technology, engineering and maths and industries such as construction. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2010 there has been a 26% increase in the number of girls entering STEM A-levels in England, and that in the United Kingdom the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses since 2010 has increased by 28%.

On 22 April, we marked the very first National Stephen Lawrence Day. It has been 26 years since his tragic racist murder. Sadly, as the Prime Minister acknowledged, racism and racial discrimination are still very prevalent in our society.

In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance stated that any measure that directly or indirectly targets and undermines the rights of marginalised groups must be understood as breaking international human rights law. This Government have presided over an immigration enforcement system in which people are being unfairly racially profiled; refused to allow people to bring forward discrimination claims based on more than one aspect of their identity; introduced voter ID, which will disenfranchise marginalised communities; failed to act on the results of their own racial disparity audit; and introduced hostile-environment policies. Will the Minister inform the House whether, as well as breaking the UN’s human rights law, her Government are institutionally racist or just do not care?

The hon. Lady raises some very important issues. I am sorry about the tone of her question, because I do not recognise the attitude that she implies among my colleagues, including the Prime Minister, who has done some groundbreaking work in this area. What I would say to her and other hon. Members who rightly are concerned about these issues is that part of the motivation for moving the Government Equalities Office into the Cabinet Office, so that it can sit alongside the race disparity team, is to look at these things in the round. As well as the issues that she identified, individuals in this country face multiple discrimination. For example, an enormous number of people sleeping on the streets in London are young, gay, black men. Only by working together and looking at the disaggregated data will we really understand how we can improve lives for everyone in this country.

Being part of the LGBT community is not a lifestyle choice and learning about LGBT issues is not what makes someone gay, lesbian or trans. What is being done by the Government to ensure that those outdated views have no place in our future society?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. We have been clear in introducing relationships education and relationships and sex education that they are designed to foster respect for others and for difference, and to educate pupils about the different types of healthy relationships. Teaching about the diverse society that we live in can be delivered in a way that respects everyone’s views.

T3. Because of the huge regional variations in maternity pay, according to the Fire Brigades Union’s women’s committee, most firefighters would be better off breaking a leg than having a baby. Will the Government consider an increased and properly enforced flat rate of maternity pay to tackle the gender and regional inequalities present in our fire service? (910550)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her FBU question. I would suggest that the FBU—[Interruption.] I have said this before, because it concerns me that there are no women on the FBU executive council. If the fire brigades workforce are to be looked after as we want them to be—Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recently published a report looking at facilities for female firefighters across the country and was concerned to see, for example, two services with no designated shower facilities for female firefighters—then these changes must be made from the very top of our fire brigade community, making sure that women’s voices are heard, because they are absolutely essential as part of our firefighting workforce.

Department of Health guidance in Northern Ireland says that Northern Ireland doctors referring women to GEO-funded free abortions in England could be breaking the criminal law. Will the Minister publish her legal advice to enable the Department of Health to change that guidance, which surely is erroneous? Will she update the House on what she is doing to help women in Northern Ireland, such as Sarah Ewart and others, who are being required by law to continue pregnancies where doctors have already told them that their babies will die before they are born or shortly after?

May I start by thanking my right hon. Friend and the Women and Equalities Committee for an incredibly important piece of work? It not only looked at the legal and human rights issues, but got on record public opinion and the opinion of healthcare and legal professionals in Northern Ireland and showed the complete paucity of care being endured by women in Northern Ireland. With specific regard to the legal advice, I clarified in my evidence to her Committee via a letter that the legal advice that we received when the scheme was set up meant that it would not be a crime to refer to those services and that the issue that she raised in her question does not stand.

I have also met with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who looks at health inequalities. She believes that she already has the powers to provide guidance to ensure that no one is deterred from referring someone to a healthcare service that they need, and where their life may be in danger if they do not receive it, because of fear that doing so might be a crime. That is completely bogus, and she has undertaken to do that immediately. However, there is obviously more to do to put right this issue—with apologies for adding to my answer, Mr Speaker—so that every citizen of the United Kingdom can have the healthcare services that they need.

We are running very late. I can live with that because my intention is, as always, to accommodate Back-Bench Members, but they could help each other by now contenting themselves with single-sentence questions.

T4. What are the Government concretely doing to keep their promise to keep under review their rejection of lasting national legislation to protect women who enter abortion clinics? Ealing’s pioneering buffer zone is now a year old, but it is going to need renewal. Councils are cash strapped and the Government have said that not enough women are being harmed. How many would it take— (910551)

Order. I am sorry, but I clearly said that Members should be asking single-sentence questions. People have to be able to adjust. It is not difficult.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has done a great deal of work on this issue in her constituency. We are keeping this matter under review. We are keen that local councils are able to use the powers that they have under the antisocial behaviour laws, if appropriate in their areas.

Recent research shows that the HPV vaccine has led to a dramatic decline in cervical cancer. Having a vaccination saves lives, so can we use this opportunity to urge mums and dads across the UK to ensure that their kids have the measles vaccine?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The evidence is clear that the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Mums and dads should ensure that their children are vaccinated.

T5. EVA Women’s Aid in my constituency, which deals with nearly 1,000 vulnerable women a year, has had its rape and sexual abuse support fund grant cut, forcing it to look to close services. Will the Minister join me in urging her colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, which funds the organisation, to reconsider these cuts before crucial services to vulnerable women in Redcar and Cleveland are lost? (910552)

As the hon. Lady will know, we are doing a great deal to support women, and men, who have suffered from domestic violence. The Domestic Abuse Bill is currently being looked at. The Government have pledged an additional £20 million over this Parliament to support victims and organisations combating domestic abuse. Women’s Aid does a fantastic job.

In light of recent objection to the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that would address the discrimination against daughters when it comes to inheritance, when do the Government intend to end the practice of male primogeniture?

The Daughters’ Rights campaign was started after one new mum was told that her new arrival being a girl must have been a disappointment to her. This matter and the issue of courtesy titles are complex matters, but we do need to look at them in this modern age. My Department is working on that, and I welcome the Daughters’ Rights campaign.

T6. The Minister said that there was more to do in relation to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Will she set out how, with the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, she will work across Government to ensure that there is a clear framework and timeline for stopping the breaches of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland and for when we will be compliant with the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women? (910553)

The Northern Ireland Office has the lead on this issue, and it is waiting on a potential declaration of incompatibility. There has never been a case of such a declaration being issued and the Government not taking action. I alluded earlier to the fact that I am focusing on what we can do with the powers that we have to ensure that, within the current restrictions, every woman who needs particular healthcare services has access to them.

Shared parental leave is a good option for families, but take-up remains low. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the Business Secretary to introduce a standalone period of parental leave just for partners, to give families more choices and help women to balance work and family?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has been doing to campaign on this issue, along with a number of our Conservative colleagues. We are looking at this as part of the women’s economic empowerment strategy. We want parents to have the choice as to how they share caring responsibilities, and we know that there are practical, as well as cultural, barriers to them doing so.

T7. When will the Government consult on changes to the law to protect employees from being sexually harassed by customers or clients? It was announced last December. When will it take place? (910554)

The hon. Lady may have heard my answer to a previous question. We will consult in the summer on sexual harassment in the workplace and I would encourage her and all colleagues across the House to contribute to that consultation.

Against the background of the highest ever level of employment in our country’s history, which employment rate is growing faster—male or female?

Can the Minister detail what the terms of reference will be for the period poverty taskforce and confirm how many members will be chosen to ensure diverse representation?

I refer the hon. Lady to a written ministerial statement I tabled this week for an update. The first meeting of the taskforce will be in June, and we will be making announcements about who will be on it, but it will have three co-chairs: one from Government, one from the private sector and one from the charity and social sector.

In the response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004, what consideration is being given to the approach of the International Association of Athletics Federations and its use of testosterone levels to determine whether a trans athlete competes in a women’s or a men’s race?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, although it is slightly separate from the very narrow remit of the Gender Recognition Act. Every Department is facing all sorts of issues in relation to trans people, so we have brought together a team of Ministers and officials across Government to make sure that policy is where it needs to be. I have also had separate meetings with the Minister for Sport to discuss both elite and community sport. Many of these decisions, particularly at the elite level, are for sporting bodies to lead on, although there are safety issues as well. I can assure her that these will be ongoing meetings across all Departments and that we will make sure that every Department provides services and support and has the right policies in place for modern times.

Will the Minister confirm the Government’s position on whether the automatic parental right of men who have fathered children through rape should be removed?

I know that the hon. Lady is passionate about this, and I am pleased she has taken up this very important campaign. The Ministry of Justice is looking very closely at it. I have mentioned before that the civil procedure rule committee is looking at the issue she has raised in the past about applications to court. It will have a further meeting at the beginning of May, and I will be very happy to update her on that when the meeting has taken place.

Not now. We have three urgent questions and a business statement. There will be points of order in due course.