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Women and Equalities

Volume 661: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2019

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Welfare Policies

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of that Department’s welfare policies on women. (911294)

The welfare system treats individuals of all genders equally. It provides support and incentives to claimants to enter employment and progress in work. The Department for Work and Pensions and indeed the whole Government are committed to ensuring that all claimants have access to the right tailored support when they need it.

This question is about to completely contradict what has just been said. Under universal credit, lone parents under the age of 25 receive a lower payment than under the legacy system. This is totally arbitrary and discriminates heavily against women, who make up 90% of lone parents. Will the Minister urge the DWP to rethink the policy?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the last two Budgets, we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in universal credit. Sadly, he and his colleagues did not vote to support those changes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that ensuring that universal credit is fair and flexible for women is a vital part of supporting women’s economic empowerment?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the universal credit system, we have one-to-one support provided by work coaches, and it is working. We have just seen the figures released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics showing that the rate of women in employment is at a record high.

The Minister is also wrong with respect to national insurance contributions being attributed, or rather not attributed, to women who have more than one period of maternity leave within two years. Will he go back to look at the correspondence I have sent to the Department about this very serious problem?

Of course I will look at the correspondence and make sure that the appropriate Minister meets the hon. Lady.

With regards to the DWP’s pensions policy, this Women and Equalities Minister—the fourth—has had the opportunity to reduce the gender pay gap and tackle discrimination against those with disabilities, women and LGBT and BME people before another Prime Minister and another reshuffle. What is she going to achieve in this term?

We in the DWP have introduced a range of measures across the whole Government to make sure that we are supporting those across all sectors of society into work. As I said, the hon. Lady just needs to look at the jobs figures: we have joint record high employment, record high women’s employment and record high ethnic minorities in employment.

Hate Crime Action Plan

3. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the timetable for the publication of the next four-year hate crime action plan. (911296)

The current action plan runs from 2016 to 2020 and it was refreshed last year to ensure that it remained fit for purpose. The Government are delivering on these commitments, but we will of course continue to review what needs to be done to tackle hate crime, including what will follow the current action plan.

I thank the Minister for that reply. She will know that, disturbingly, the latest police figures record a 17% increase in hate crime. Does she accept that this is at least in part encouraged by the casual racism of some in public life, and does she agree that anyone who compares Muslim women with “letter boxes” and describes African children as “piccaninnies” is not fit to be Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to remind us all that our use of language is very, very important in public life. There are many examples across the House, it is fair to say, where, for example, people have liked Facebook pages which they then come to regret. I think there is a particular duty on all of us to ensure that the language we use is respectful, tolerant and reflects 21st-century Britain, which is a vibrant, multicultural, diverse country with much, much talent and potential among all our people.

Queer bashing is still a fact of life in modern Britain, depressingly, however we have changed the laws, and it is still a fact that young gay boys and girls are six times more likely to take their own lives than their straight counterparts. Does the Minister accept that every time somebody in public life—not necessarily an MP, but in the Church or wherever—spouts language that undermines the fundamental sense of respect that there should be for every different form of sexual identity in the UK, they increase the poison in the well and that leads to more queer bashing and more suicides?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to focus on this. Of course, recent events have shown just how despicably some people will behave when confronted with a relationship or situation with which they clearly do not feel comfortable. That is not what our country is about. Our country is a diverse, tolerant, welcoming country, and each and every one of us can play our part in making sure that that message is clear in the way we behave and speak and the words we use.

First, can I ask or perhaps suggest that all this whataboutery is parked, because it does not suit this House? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) had access to my question, because I would also like to ask the Minister this. As we are speaking about the hate crime action plan, will she distance herself from people whose comments directly lead to an increase in hate crime, such as her colleague who described gay people as “bumboys”, black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and Muslim women as “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, which, according to the Government’s own funded reporting centre Tell MAMA, led to an increase in attacks on Muslim women?

Again, I am genuinely sorry because I am afraid I am not familiar with some of the instances the hon. Lady has just set out. [Interruption.] Really. But the point of the action plan is that it focuses on the five themes of preventing hate crime by challenging prejudicial beliefs and attitudes, responding to hate crime within our communities, increasing the reporting of hate crime, improving support for victims of hate crime and building our understanding of hate crime. Again, each and every one of us in this House and beyond can play our part in tackling the hate and showing that we are a modern, diverse and welcoming country for everyone.

Census: National Minorities

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office on ensuring that all UK national minorities are given equal status in the next census. (911297)

I respect the passion of my hon. Friends from Cornwall in their campaign for Cornish national identity. However, the Government will be guided by the ONS’s recommendations to the Government and Parliament regarding particular questions in the next census. Everyone who wishes to identify their chosen national identity will be able to do so in the 2021 census.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the Cornish continue to be the only UK national minority unable to identify themselves in the census by way of a tick box. Does the Minister agree that this falls short of equality of recognition for the Cornish?

Ultimately, as I have just said, the Government will be guided by the ONS’s recommendations, and ultimately the final questions will be decided by this House.

Does the Minister agree that while it is important that all recognised national minorities should receive their place in the census, we do need to be very careful that we do not put forward nominations for what are not recognised national minorities and be accused of social engineering?

When filling in the census, particularly given the fact that we have moved mostly to online filling in, everyone will be able to use either one of the tick boxes or the search and type facility for common responses that people may wish to use. Everyone will be able to fill it in in the way they wish and to identify their own identity. As I say, the Government will be guided by the ONS’s recommendations about what should be the suggested ones in the form of tick boxes.

I note the Minister’s response about the online versions, but people filling in the paper version, particularly religious minorities, will not be prompted what to fill in—for example, the Jain community. Will he do everything he can to make sure that those from religious communities can fill in their religion?

I recognise the demands that have been made about a Jain religion tick box, but it is worth noting that the religion question is a voluntary one. Again, there is an opportunity to put in on the paper form what religious identity people have. Most people use that seriously, but as many of us will know, some people decided to declare they were Jedis.

Female Employment

The female employment rate of 72% is a record high. The industrial strategy is transforming our economy, ensuring that everyone can access, and progress at, work. We have a range of parental and other leave entitlements, and we are working with businesses to promote flexible working. We will invest £3.5 billion in early education this year, making childcare more accessible.

We have record numbers of women in work, but more than 50,000 women a year feel they have no choice but to leave their jobs simply because they are pregnant. Will the Minister look carefully at my ten-minute rule Bill, which is a way to try to provide proper protection for pregnant women, so more of them can stay on in work when they are pregnant and continue to work when they have young children?

I commend my right hon. Friend for her passion, and for her work as Chair of the Select Committee and her ten-minute rule Bill. As she will know, we recently conducted a consultation on maternity and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, which finished at the beginning of April. We are currently reviewing more than 600 responses, and we hope to publish the results as soon as possible.

11. I am very keen on women—[Laughter]—in good jobs, because I have a wife, three daughters and five granddaughters, but may I urge the Minister to pay more attention to getting women into management training? Women indisputably make better managers than men, so let us have more of them training as managers in order to reach the top levels of management in our country. (911304)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that issue. I am proud to be a Minister sitting on the Front Bench among many other females: that just shows that women can do it. One of our priorities has been getting women on boards, and we are on track to reach our target of 33%, but it is crucial that we feed into the pipeline and get women into those executive positions. Hopefully, some of us in the House will be good models for them.

The huge success of the Conservative approach to apprenticeships has enabled many women to secure well-paid jobs in manufacturing. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the work of companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, which trains equal numbers of men and women as engineering apprentices, despite the challenges that they face?

I strongly commend the work of organisations such as JLR. In my constituency, BAE Systems has high-level apprenticeships for women engineers, which is great. We need more women in higher executive roles, and an apprenticeship system is one of the great vehicles that we can use to achieve that.

As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), 54,000 women lose their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination. The Women and Equalities Committee has long recommended an increase in the employment tribunal time limit for maternity discrimination claims from three to six months to break down some of the barriers. Why have the Government not implemented that?

The hon. Lady will know that the consultation, which finished in April, dealt with that very issue. However, we also sought views on the position of parents who have been on adoption leave or shared parental leave and are returning to work. As I have said, we are looking through the 600 responses to the consultation and are keen to publish the results as soon as possible. Let me emphasise, however, that the law is clear: discrimination against pregnant women coming back from maternity leave is unlawful.

Period Poverty

Let me begin by saying that I hope the whole House will join me in wishing good luck to England and Scotland for their world cup matches this Friday.

We have set up a taskforce, which I co-chair with Plan International and Procter & Gamble. It will improve data and evidence on period poverty, and improve access to period products for all women and girls. Internationally, we have committed the United Kingdom to leading a new campaign of action to end period poverty and shame globally by 2030.

Will the Minister join me in celebrating the great work done by the Red Box project, which is helping me to distribute sanitary products to schools across my constituency?

I do congratulate Red Box, and also the many organisations throughout the country which Members will know well in their own constituencies. As well as bringing together the manufacturers, the taskforce brings together a network of all those organisations so that we can combat period poverty across the UK.

The Minister may or may not be aware that Derry City Council is one of the few councils in Northern Ireland that have taken steps to address period poverty among their staff. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss these matters with local councils, which have a responsibility to their staff?

The Departments of Health and Education have initiatives involving schools and colleges and people in hospitals, but there are many other settings in which we need to combat period poverty, and the workplace is just one of them. That is the purpose of the taskforce, and we shall be talking to all employers in the public and private sectors.

State Pension Age: Equalisation

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of the acceleration of the equalisation of the state pension age on women born in the 1950s. (911300)

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of the acceleration of the equalisation of the state pension age on women born in the 1950s. (911302)

13. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of the acceleration of the equalisation of the state pension age on women born in the 1950s. (911307)

The Government of the day decided more than 20 years ago that they were going to make the state pension age the same for men and women in a long overdue move towards gender equality, and this change was clearly communicated. We need to raise the age at which all of us can draw a state pension so that it remains sustainable now and for future generations.

We know from House of Commons Library data that the number of women aged 60 claiming out-of-work benefits has increased since 2013 by more than the total number of claimants of all other ages, so what further evidence do we need that this UK Government have totally failed this cohort of women?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that additional money was put into the system—an extra £1.1 billion—which means that women in this cohort will benefit.

The fact is that 1950s-born women suffered discrimination and lower pay leading to smaller or no private pensions to fall back on, so it beggars belief that they then had to suffer the equalisation of the state pension age. Given the past injustices, the lack of notification of the Pensions Act 1995 and the way the Pensions Act 2011 has been rolled out, who in this Government is going to take responsibility for fair transitional arrangements?

As I said, additional money was put into the system, but ultimately this is a question of fairness between generations. We need to make sure that we keep the state pension sustainable, and of course we have to reflect improvements in life expectancy.

It will not be lost on those in the Chamber that the Minister has again repeated the myth that these changes were “clearly communicated”. The Work and Pensions Committee said in 2016 that the Department did not live up to expectations and that communication “was very limited”, so can the Minister look us in the eye and genuinely say he thinks he did communicate this to women and did not lead them up the garden path?

At the risk of repeating myself, this is a question of making it clear that we have provided extra support, but this is a question of fairness and I know the hon. Gentleman will want to make sure that intergenerational fairness is reflected in these changes.

Women entering Custody

8. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to provide a co-ordinated approach to supporting women at risk of entering custody. (911301)

Last summer, our female offender strategy set out priorities for supporting women at risk of entering the criminal justice system. As part of that strategy, we will be publishing a national concordat shortly, setting out how public services should co-operate to protect these vulnerable women.

The number of prison officers leaving within a year of starting their role has risen dramatically since 2010, so what are the Government doing to ensure that prisons have experienced staff to assist female prisoners, who often have complex needs, and what steps are the Government taking to support women’s centres, which play a huge role in preventing vulnerable women from entering the criminal justice system?

That is two questions for the price of one, which I will seek to answer. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are recruiting significant numbers of prison officers—over 2,000 more—but also significantly increasing our spending on women’s centres to make sure that every police and crime commissioner area has a centre.

As a welcome reform of probation services is ongoing, now is the time to look at how we can improve delivery of these services. Will the Minister commit to looking at making specialist gendered support such as women’s centres, female drug rehabilitation clinics and women’s refuges mandatory as part of the probation services across the country?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We know that women leaving prison have a range of quite distinct needs: they have higher reoffending rates than men, 39% go into unsettled accommodation, and a third are not on out-of-work benefits a month after leaving prison. There is a wide range of issues that we need to look at, and we will take the hon. Lady’s point seriously on board.

Flexible Working

All employees with 26 weeks of continuous service have the right to request flexible working; that accounts for over 90% of employees. We will consult on creating a duty for employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly and to make that clear when advertising. We have also established a flexible working taskforce with business groups and employee representatives to promote wider understanding and the implementation of flexible working practices.

Lots of women working in industries such as retail return from maternity leave to find that they are held back from progressing in their careers because their new caring responsibilities are interpreted as a lack of flexibility. What more can the Government do to challenge this short-sighted behaviour in a minority of employers?

I note my hon. Friend’s expertise in the retail sector before being elected to this House. The retail sector gender pay gap is 9.1%, compared with 17.9% overall, but the Government are not complacent and the sector continues to take steps to tackle gender inequality, including through the British Retail Consortium’s “Better Retail Better World”. This has involved more than 30 leading businesses committing to reducing inequality as part of the sector’s contribution to the sustainable development goals.

Workplace Discrimination

12. What steps she is taking to reduce workplace discrimination against people from black and ethnic minority communities. (911305)

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees or people seeking work based on race. The Government are committed to a society where everyone can enter work and progress on merit, regardless of their background. That is why the Prime Minister has launched a consultation on mandatory ethnicity pay reporting alongside the new race charter.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but 35% of black and ethnic minority workers in the west midlands have been encouraged to adopt a western work name by their boss at least once in their career. That is a truly shocking and unacceptable state of affairs in 21st century Britain, so what is the Minister prepared to do to stamp out such discrimination in the workplace for BME workers?

The hon. Lady is quite right. Let us be clear that discrimination of any kind in the workplace is not tolerated, and is unlawful in some cases. The Prime Minister has a strong commitment, which is why she introduced the mandatory ethnicity pay reporting consultation. I would also like to highlight to the hon. Lady that the business diversity and inclusion group, which I recently chaired, very much wants to ensure that no one in the workplace will be discriminated against because of their colour or gender.

Topical Questions

This year’s Pride takes place at a time when LGBT issues are firmly in the public consciousness. It is a reminder, 50 years on from the Stonewall riots in New York, that Pride is just as important today as it was then. Still today, LGBT couples fear holding hands in public. Still today, LGBT people are the victims of prejudice and violence, and still today, some people think it is inappropriate to teach children that other children might have two mums or two dads. I ask all Members of this House to support Pride in the coming weeks and to continue to work towards equality for all.

Women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of domestic work, spending an average of 10 hours more per week on household work than men. The Office for National Statistics has estimated the value of this work at £1.24 trillion, which is more than the UK’s retail and manufacturing sectors combined. What work is the Department doing to quantify and value this household work?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have been working on a women’s economic empowerment strategy, which looks at the responsibilities that women take on at every stage of their lives and at the impact of that on their financial and physical wellbeing. We will publish the strategy very shortly.

T5. What is the Minister doing to help girls to reach their full potential in the light of their being taken from school at this time of the year at or below the age of 16 for early marriage abroad? (911314)

I thank my hon. Friend for her unrelenting campaign to ensure that this issue is brought before the House. Forced marriage is a terrible form of abuse, and this Government and this Prime Minister have made protecting women and girls from violence and supporting victims of forced marriage a key priority. We have introduced a range of measures to tackle this crime, including creating a specific forced marriage offence and criminalising the breach of forced marriage protection orders.

Earlier, one of the Ministers said that they were unfamiliar with some of the comments made by the Conservative candidates for the leadership, so I would like to do my public duty. The right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has refused to lift non-disclosure agreements that he has entered into with some women, and he wants to abolish the Government Equalities Office. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) referred to black people as “piccaninnies” and Muslim women who wear the niqab as “letter boxes” or “bank robbers”. The right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) says that there is a problem with kids learning about LGBT+ issues. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) said that having children would make her a better Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) said that he did not condemn all paedophiles. Finally, the Minister for Women and Equalities’ preferred candidate, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), is going to halve the abortion limit to 12 weeks. In the light of all that, will the Minister confirm whether equalities will progress or regress under the new Prime Minister?

On the accusations that the hon. Lady makes against my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, may I gently point out that it was under his tenure that the scheme for Northern Ireland was introduced, funded from England’s NHS budget? I also gently say that the hon. Lady may like to concentrate on her own side’s performance on equalities. The Conservative party has had two female Prime Ministers, and we may have our third in a few weeks, so I encourage the Opposition to get their own act together before casting aspersions on ours.

The Government intend to require businesses to consider whether a job can be done flexibly, but will the Minister argue for flipping that question, so that jobs are flexible by default and that employers must make the case for any job not to be flexible?

Flexible working is just as important to men as it is to women when they seek to strike a balance between family life and a career. I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming our intention to consult on the duty on employers to advertise jobs as flexible, where possible. The Government are not considering making all jobs flexible, but I spoke at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s festival of work this morning, and making flexible working the norm was very much the topic of conversation.

T2. Despite York being a human rights city, the gender pay gap has increased by a staggering 225% since 2010, with women predominantly in low-paid, part-time and insecure work. How will the Minister invest in an adequate number of jobs for women in our city? (911310)

There is still a lot more to do on levelling the gender pay gap, and I am delighted to announce today the next round of grants to support women who face significant barriers when returning to work. The Adviza Partnership, the Regular Forces Employment Association, which is the forces employment charity, Mpower People, Westminster City Council, the Shpresa Programme, Beam, and Liverpool City Council are some of the awardees, and they will create opportunities for the most disadvantaged women in our society to achieve their full potential.

Climate change is not gender neutral and will impact the poorest countries most, exacerbating inequalities. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities join me in congratulating the Prime Minister on ensuring that our country is the first in the world to legislate for net zero?

This is an incredibly important issue that plays into all the factors that determine whether women and girls around the world are able to reach their full potential. I am extremely proud that our Prime Minister—a female Prime Minister—has been the UN Secretary-General’s resilience champion on climate change and has taken this proposal forward.

T3. Will the Minister tell us how many women hold senior rank in the UK armed forces and what she intends to do to increase the number of women holding high rank? (911311)

I have committed myself to that cause in ways that previous Defence Secretaries have not by wearing a uniform myself. There has been considerable progress, and I refer the hon. Lady to some statistics that will be published tomorrow that are encouraging in that respect. We now have women on the boards of all three services, and I hope to make some further announcements shortly.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that the UK was recently announced as one of the best places in the world for female entrepreneurship under the Dell scorecard?

I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the fact that this country is a great place for women, indeed everyone, to do business. This is one of the challenges facing us in our new future outside the European Union and, with women like us in our country, we have a very bright future indeed.

T4. Women who are in a car crash are 17% more likely to die than men, so will the Department consider a legal requirement on car manufacturers to have female dummies to test their cars? (911313)

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support women facing multiple barriers on returning to work after taking time out for caring duties?

In addition to the returners programme that we have announced today, we have ring-fenced some of that money and an additional £100,000 of funding to particular areas for women who face immense barriers to getting into work or who may have never worked but wish to do so. That includes learning English for those who have not previously had the chance.

T6. The suspects arrested in relation to the vicious and horrific attack on a same-sex couple on a bus in Camden last month are secondary school age children. Does the Secretary of State appreciate the link between sex and relationships education in schools and the prevention of LGBT hate crime? What is she doing to ensure that schools across the country can teach the new curriculum, in line with the law, without fear of intimidation? (911315)

I am sure the whole House shares our concern at the recent events we have seen not just in London but in Southampton. As I have said before, we are clear that this is a modern, diverse society, which is precisely why we are introducing sex and relationships education to schools across the country to ensure that our children learn tolerance and understanding.

Domestic abuse and modern-day slavery are two issues that disproportionately affect women. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the Prime Minister for everything she has done to improve the legislation in this area and to help those women affected by these issues to have better prospects and a better future?

It is my great privilege to agree with my right hon. Friend, whom I thank for all the work she has done recently to scrutinise the draft Domestic Abuse Bill. I thank the Prime Minister for her commitment to women’s issues and to addressing domestic abuse and modern slavery. Only yesterday, I was at an important event at which we discussed the impact of domestic abuse on male victims. People in the room said that they would like me to pass on to the Prime Minister their thanks for everything she has done to put women on the agenda of this country and this Government.