Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 663: debated on Thursday 11 July 2019

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Pension Inequality

Before I respond, may I say, on behalf of our Front-Bench team and, I hope, of the whole House, how proud we are of the Lionesses for their exceptionally inspirational performance in the women’s World cup?

Recent state pension reforms have meant that by 2030 more than 3 million women will be £550 a year better off on average. Automatic enrolment has helped to equalise workplace pension participation, and the Government’s gender inequality road map sets out our proposals to tackle financial instability in later life.

Equalising the pension age has been very painful. We understand the reasons for it, but it is very painful for many of my constituents—females born in the 1950s. What has the Minister’s Department done to militate against that? What more can be done to avoid hardship for that age group?

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for his constituents. This Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion; this concession reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 men and women, and means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months, relative to the original Pensions Act 1995 timetable. For those experiencing hardship, the welfare system continues to provide a safety net, with a range of benefits tailored to individual circumstances.

The Minister must recognise that, particularly for working-class women in the north-east who started work earlier, sometimes at the age of 14 or 15, and are in manual trades, which take a huge toll on the body, this pension inequality is really affecting lives. What is he doing to meet the just claims of the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women and provide support for those women so disproportionately affected?

As I say, the Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion. We have considered the alternative options and found that there are substantial practical, financial and legal problems with all alternative options offered by stakeholders so far to mitigate the impact on those affected.

In addition to the Lionesses, will the Minister also congratulate the Scottish women’s football team on their efforts and wish the Scottish Thistles netball team all the best in the netball world cup, which is coming up this week?

The WASPI women have already been cheated out of their pensions by this and previous Governments, but a further issue is emerging, with the Association of British Insurers talking of £20 billion of unclaimed pensions, in 1.6 million pension pots. That will disproportionately affect women, as they are more likely to have changed jobs multiple times during their careers. What is the Minister going to do to make sure that those women do not also lose out on pensions to which they should be entitled, in unclaimed pension pots?

I will certainly echo the comments made by the hon. Lady about those sporting teams in Scotland. Her question is better related to the Pensions Minister, so I will ensure that he responds fully to the points she raises. However, I would say, on WASPI women, that any amendment to the current legislation that creates a new inequality between men and women would be unquestionably highly dubious as a matter of law, and the Government’s position on the changes to the state pension age remains clear and consistent.

British Sign Language Courses

2. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the availability of British Sign Language courses. (911871)

A range of qualifications in BSL are available, but of course it is for schools and colleges to decide whether to offer these qualifications or other courses in BSL. The Department for Education is working to develop draft subject content for a potential GCSE in BSL.

Cheshire College South and West, in my constituency, has had to cancel the BSL courses altogether, due to cuts in the adult education budget. That pattern is being repeated all over the country, so may I urge the Minister to look carefully at the impact of the cuts his Government are implementing?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the particular issue regarding that college. He will be aware that the exam board Signature has a number of BSL qualifications at different levels. He will also know that the DFE funds the I-Sign project, which has developed a family sign language programme course, which is available online, and post-16 funding is of course a priority in the upcoming spending review.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), as nobody in the Portcullis House atrium yesterday can have failed to have been moved by the signing choir, who performed to great acclaim. Will the Minister join me, the hon. Member for Waveney and the choir in calling for a GCSE in sign language?

I did enjoy meeting Daniel Jillings’s mother, Ann, and I am only sorry that I could not go to the performance of the Lowestoft Signing Choir last night. The hon. Lady will know that in February the Department announced that it would begin the process of developing draft subject content for a GCSE in BSL, which will need to be considered against the requirements that apply to all GCSEs.

Equalities Hub

The new Equalities Hub includes the Government Equalities Office, the race disparity unit and the new disability unit. Not only does it bring together the parts of Government that lead on gender, race, disability and sexual orientation, but it will use the convening power of the Cabinet Office better to leverage work across Whitehall.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for putting together for the first time ever an Equalities Hub. How will she make sure that Government Departments still see it as their responsibility to work together to deliver better equalities policies in future? In our inquiries, the Women and Equalities Committee often highlights that as a real problem.

The hub will hold those Departments to account. It will have some new tools to do that: better data and the ability to look at the multiple disadvantages that individuals face. There are also single departmental plans and other methods that the Cabinet Office has. We will make further announcements this week that will provide other means by which we can hold everyone across Government to account.

I welcome the Equalities Hub, but I urge the Government to make hubs available throughout the country. Will the Minister pay particular attention to a group that lobbied me only last week? They were women who have been in prison, come out of prison, and had to return to the atmosphere of bullying and oppression in the home they were in before they served their prison sentence. These women need the full service in the Equalities Hub. They are a very special case, so will the Minister help them?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice recently visited some women’s prisons and spoke to people there about further things we need to do. Part of the work of the Government Equalities Office is to create better networks across the whole of the UK in all these policy areas.

Gender Bias: Employment

4. Which employment sectors are most gender-biased against (a) women and (b) men; and if she will take steps to tackle those biases. (911874)

My hon. Friend has asked a deviously difficult question, in that there are many ways to interpret it. I have taken it to reflect the gender split in sectors. The worst sectors in terms of the gender split for women are construction; mining and quarrying; and water supply, sewerage and waste management. All those sectors have workforces that are more than 80% men. The worst sectors in terms of the gender split for men are education, human health and social work. We are working with all those sectors to drive action plans to address the specific problems that men and women face, whether in recruitment, retention, or progression to senior leadership roles, in those sectors.

Brilliant though the Minister is, she cannot be expected, any more than any of us can, to know the inner workings of the sophisticated mind of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

There is a highly disproportionately low number of male primary school teachers. What can the Government do to address this?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. There is interesting research on what and how gender stereotypes form at early ages. By the age of seven, girls tend to think that they should be in what we call very loosely the caring industries, and boys tend to think about the mechanical and engineering-type industries. So it starts at the very beginning. We have to work on, and we are working on, ensuring that the gender stereotypes for boys and girls are not allowed to continue. That is precisely why the gender equality road map that we published last week will help with those limiting and limited stereotypes. We must very much encourage boys to grow, and to be great teachers in our schools and colleges.

I am sure the Minister would agree that in the care sector—where my mother has worked for the past 30 years—the focus tends to be purely on women working in that sector, often because it is part-time and low-paid work. What more will the Minister do to make sure that the care sector is seen as a real profession, with good qualifications and a decent salary?

The care sector is such an important sector in our economy—all the more so as we age and live for longer—so through the gender equality road map we are very much looking into how we can help to ensure that the part-time roles are paid properly, and also that there are career opportunities. A tiny step is, of course, the gender pay gap regulation reporting, which helps to set out the disparities between pay, not only within industries and sectors but across the economy. It is through that that we will start to get much better quality.

Only 1% of the tradespeople who work in building maintenance in housing associations are female, so will my hon. Friend endorse the work of the Guinness Partnership and its ambassador tradeswomen who are trying to drive up that figure by going into schools and colleges, encouraging women to pursue a career in construction?

I endorse not only the work of the Guinness Partnership, but the work of my hon. Friend, who is a powerhouse himself for trying to ensure that women and girls see construction as a really good industry and a really good employment opportunity for them.

Prison Officer Training: Women’s Mental Health

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of training for prison officers working with women with mental health needs. (911875)

From April of this year, a new specialist training package known as Positive Outcomes for Women: Empowerment and Rehabilitation has been devised to support prison officers working with women in custody and the community. That will help staff to have the necessary skills and knowledge to deal with those with specific needs.

Given that women in prison account for a disproportionate amount of self-harm incidents, it is increasingly important that they are given support in prison. When will the Minister commit to enhancing support for vulnerable women with a mental health need in prison?

The hon. Lady will have heard what I just said about the new training programme, but it is part of a wider policy framework. In particular, there is work on the Lord Farmer review to improve family ties for female offenders and a further investment of £5 million for community provision. My experience last week at Her Majesty’s Prison Eastwood Park taught me a lot about how women can help each other and support each other through the process, which can often be a very traumatic time for them.

This year’s inspection of HMP Foston Hall identified that 74% of women had mental health problems, but only two thirds were receiving any help. At the same prison, only half of officers had received any mental health awareness training despite a general feeling that they would like more. What more can be done to improve mental health training across the estate to reduce self-harm and suicide and to improve on the current position?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. As I have said, the roll out of the new POWER scheme is going to be very important in terms of giving prison officers the tools they need to help support women with mental health needs. I do think that our overall strategy is now translating into real change, with the key worker scheme allowing prison officers to work with individual prisoners to identify their needs, so there is progress, but I accept that much more needs to be done.

Windrush: Home Office Investigation

6. Whether her Department is supporting the Home Office internal investigation into the causes of the Windrush scandal; and if she will make a statement. (911876)

The Home Secretary commissioned a lessons-learned review to consider the key policy and operational decisions that led to members of the Windrush generation becoming entangled in measures designed for illegal immigrants and appointed Wendy Williams as its independent adviser. We understand that Wendy Williams has been considering a great deal of material during the course of the review and has spoken with a wide range of people. We will publish her report following its receipt.

The Government seem obsessed with pushing through a damaging no-deal Brexit, and Windrush victims feel ignored, as they have to make do with an apology, or perhaps another review, then a report, and then a consultation on the report and the review. Words are cheap; actions count. Can the Minister please explain how the process of compensating Windrush victims is progressing?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked this question, because it gives me the opportunity to inform her that more than 6,400 people have been granted some form of documentation by the Windrush taskforce and more than 4,200 people have successfully applied to become British nationals through the Windrush scheme. We have announced that the Windrush compensation scheme is open for claimants. The forms, rules and claimant guidance were published in April and the free phone helpline is available for those wishing to receive printed copies of the forms or for any other queries.

The Government said that it would take two weeks to resolve the Windrush cases; it has been over 64 weeks thus far. I have a live petition, which garnered more than 800 signatures a day, which I plan to present to the Prime Minister next week. Will the Minister join me in fighting for justice and fairness for the Windrush generation, and support the call to get all cases resolved before we break for recess?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she knows from the work she has done, every case is complex. We want to ensure that they are being thoroughly considered. We will continue to update the Select Committee with work and progress on this, but I refer her back to the fact that more than 6,400 people have been given some form of documentation and more than 4,200 people have successfully applied to become British nationals through the scheme.

Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

7. When the Government plan to announce a decision on their review of proposals to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics. (911877)

It is a pleasure to answer this question from the hon. Lady. In September 2018, having considered the evidence of the review, the Home Secretary reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response given the experience of the vast majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are passive in nature; but we of course watch with great interest the incidents that are happening in her constituency.

Ealing’s buffer zone is pioneering, but it is a local byelaw and its renewal process will have to start next year, notwithstanding its High Court challenge next week. Women up and down the country—clinic users and staff—need the certainties of protection from harassment by national, lasting legislation, and the evidence of the Minister’s review does not bear out what all the pressure groups are saying. So when will the Government have the guts to act?

It is not a question of having the guts or otherwise. We looked at this very carefully. We looked at the range of hospitals and clinics across the country that offer these services, and the overwhelming majority did not report the sorts of activities that the hon. Lady has described taking place outside the clinic in her constituency. However, we of course keep the matter under review, and I am always happy to discuss this with the hon. Lady, because I know she takes such an interest in it.

Workplace Gender Equality

8. What steps the Government are taking to enable employers to increase gender equality in the workplace. (911879)

The cross-Government gender equality road map sets out our plans to address the persistent gender barriers that people face at every stage of their life. It addresses the cumulative impact faced disproportionately by women as a result of gender barriers at every stage of their life.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Ogden Trust, participating businesses, higher and further education providers and John Best on their sterling work in promoting the coastal energy internship programme, which in three years has grown from providing five to 50 internships, and which is ensuring that female interns have every opportunity to work in an industry that has long been male-dominated?

I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in highlighting that fantastic example and congratulating all involved on its success. In order to improve gender representation in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—industries, we are raising awareness of the opportunities that these career paths present, through the Government careers strategy.

Sexual Violence Support Services

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the provision of support services for people who have experienced sexual violence. (911880)

The Minister for victims, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and the Minister for mental health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), meet quarterly, and in their most recent meeting they discussed mental health support for victims of serious violence and sexual assault, as part of the Government’s continued work to implement an integrated system of care for victims.

A recent public petition brought by campaigner Fern Champion on the issue of funding for rape crisis centres has attracted more than 150,000 signatures. Fern’s experience, echoed by many, is that rape crisis centres are so oversubscribed that survivors are being turned away or are told to wait for up to two years before they can receive support. Will the Minister commit to meet me—preferably before the summer recess—to discuss how we ensure that all survivors of sexual violence can access support?

I am happy to commit the victims Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), to that meeting; I am sure he will be very pleased with me. This is an important and serious issue, because rape crisis centres form an invaluable part of the service. I am glad to say that from April this year my Department has increased funding for specialised rape and sexual abuse support services by 10%—up by £8 million a year—and that, for the first time, we will have centrally funded services in all 42 police and crime commissioner areas. That is a sign of our deep commitment, but we will work further with the hon. Lady.

Flexible Working

10. What steps she is taking to ensure that businesses offer employees their legal right to request flexible working. (911881)

All employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have the right to request flexible working—that is over 90% of employees. Employers can refuse a request for flexible working only if they have sound business reasons, which are set out in statute. We have also established the flexible working taskforce to promote wider understanding of implementation of flexible working practices. Earlier this year, we launched a flexible working website specifically aimed at helping working mothers to find flexible jobs.

Women who work at Asda in Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, and indeed across the whole country, are currently facing dismissal if they do not accept a new contract that would end the flexibility they currently have. In view of the helpful answer that the Minister has given, will she join me and the GMB union in calling on Asda to think again and have a proper negotiation?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the concerns among her constituents with regard to the change of contract. As she well knows, that is a debate and a negotiation between the employer and the employees and their representatives. I am sure that the unions involved will be making their feelings clear. I advise those of her constituents who have any concerns about the practices that are happening within Asda to ring ACAS, which will be able to give them good, sound advice.

Maternity Discrimination

11. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that women are protected from maternity discrimination. (911883)

The law is absolutely clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful. The Government recognise the importance of tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination more widely, and have consulted on extending redundancy protections. We have received over 600 responses, which we are currently reviewing, and we will set out the next steps very soon.

Flexible working enables women to stay in work and develop their careers after they have children, and helps to prevent maternity discrimination. It could also help to close the gender pay gap. It has made a huge difference to a member of staff in my constituency office with regard to getting back into work after having a child. What steps can my hon. Friend outline to ensure that flexible working is offered in employment contracts, and is also a priority when advertising the job so that people understand that it is a possibility?

My hon. Friend is quite right. This Government recognise that we need to do as much as we can for working families, and particularly for women who may suffer from discrimination. She is right to talk about flexibility. She will know that the Government have committed to consulting on a duty on employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly and to make that very clear in the advertisement for the job.

Following the long overdue consultation on the rights of pregnant women and new mothers, does the Minister expect the Government to support the recommendation made by the Women and Equalities Committee that the German model offers the best solution for protecting women from the worst employers?

The hon. Lady is right: we have had the consultation, on which we will hopefully make further announcements soon. It is absolutely right that we have consulted on the extension of the pregnancy and maternity protections for up to six months. The Government have looked at the German approach to enforcement, which uses a state body to grant permissions to make new mothers redundant. This would diverge from the UK system of enforcement of individuals’ employment rights through employment tribunals.

Topical Questions

All workers should be safe and able to thrive at work. Workplace harassment reflects an unacceptable sense of power, entitlement and disrespect towards others. Today I have launched a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace. I am seeking views on whether the law is fit for purpose and how we can ensure that we have the right processes in place to keep people safe at work. We want to hear from people affected by this issue and design solutions that work for them. I urge everyone with an interest to go on to and help us in this exercise by filling out the consultation questionnaire.

According to the Home Office, only 15 police forces have had training in relation to domestic abuse and violence. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office to ensure that all police forces receive that training?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. There is work going on to build further capacity in police forces across the four nations. The UK is also making a major contribution to deliver that capacity in the police forces of other nations. I will get my hon. Friend the Minister for Women to write to him with the specifics.

T3. Angus is proud to be home to one of only three guide dog training centres across the country. I want to do more to support those with sight loss. One measure is to introduce audio passenger information on buses, which would allow those with sight loss to travel independently. There was a consultation on the Bus Services Act 2017, which finished in September last year. Could my right hon. Friend update the House on when those recommendations will be made public? (911887)

The consultation has finished, and some funding is ring-fenced as part of the inclusive transport strategy for ensuring that audio-visual equipment is installed on buses. The Department for Transport is in the process of bringing forward regulations and publishing guidance. That will be later this year. In the meantime, we are encouraging operators’ efforts to ensure that there is accessible information on their services.

The Prime Minister cites the race disparity audit and the gender pay gap regulations as some of her proudest achievements, seemingly not realising that they are symbolic of her failures. The report highlighted the systematic institutional racism of her Government’s policies, and we now have the real possibility of a casual racist and misogynist entering No.10—[Interruption.] I am afraid it is true. I hope the Minister will give assurances that the women and equalities agenda—[Interruption.]

Order. Let me be absolutely clear: nothing disorderly has occurred. People have free speech within the rules of the House. I will adjudicate the enforcement of those rules. Nothing disorderly has taken place, and I certainly do not require any assistance from occupants of the Treasury Bench.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I could go through the list of things that have been said, but we do not have time. I hope the Minister will give assurances that the women and equalities agenda will not go backwards under the new Prime Minister. To adapt Stormzy lyrics:

“We have to be honest

Rule number two, don’t make the promise

If you can’t make the deal, just be honest

Equalities will never die, it’s like Chuck Norris

Rather, chuck this Government and chuck Boris.”

Although I am sure that there will be a lot of column inches and debate about the Prime Minister’s legacy, one of the things she can be proud of is setting up the Race Disparity Unit and the work she did to shine a spotlight on practices in particular parts of Government and public services. She has also supported me in setting up the equalities hub, which brings together that disparity team with disability, women and equalities and LGBT issues at the heart of Government. She should be very proud of that.

I gently point out to those on the Opposition Front Bench and all Members of the Labour party that they really should have come to the House today with a bit of humility, following the shocking and, quite frankly, chilling things we saw last night. There are Members of the Labour party—a once great political party—who are standing up for the Jewish community, and long may they continue to do that, but those on the Front Bench have to understand the graveness of what we saw. It is one thing to be incompetent and fail to grip a situation. It is quite another to be complicit in it.

T5. What steps is the Minister taking to protect people from sexual harassment at work, particularly in the charity sector? (911890)

I thank my hon. Friend, particularly for the work she has done in focusing both domestically and internationally on this issue. As I said in my opening statement, we are today issuing a consultation, which will apply across every sector, to protect workers against harassment, particularly sexual harassment. Of course, the Department for International Development has done a tremendous amount in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, ensuring that the victims’ voices can be heard, but we are also building the systems we need globally to protect people from predatory individuals.

T2. A constituent of mine was involved in several car accidents, leaving them disabled. After going through the difficult process of claiming disability benefits, they are now being denied legal aid in relation to these accidents. This constituent is a veteran. Is the Minister not ashamed that my constituent, after serving our country, does not have his years of service impacting on his wellbeing, but this Government’s hostile environment towards disabled people, who, as confirmed by the UN, are disproportionately denied justice? (911886)

T6. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the Lowestoft Signing Choir produced a moving and superb performance in Portcullis House last night. Its members Ann and Daniel Jillings have been passionately campaigning for a GCSE in British sign language. While preparatory work is under way, will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities work with the Department for Education and with the Minister for School Standards, who has been very supportive—he is in his place—to ensure that this exam, which will transform so many people’s lives, is put in the curriculum as soon as practically possible? (911892)

I am delighted to confirm that we are committed to the development of a BSL GCSE. Daniel Jillings and his mother Ann have been formidable campaigners on this issue. Daniel in particular, despite his young age, has been very influential indeed with his campaign. We are pushing this work forward as soon as we can, while also ensuring that it can be completed to the highest standard. My hon. Friend will be aware that the development of a new GCSE is a complex and lengthy process, but, as I say, we are committed to it as a new GCSE.

T4. In case it is her last Question Time, may I thank the Minister for Women and Equalities for the leadership she has shown on LGBT equality during her time in post to date, which I know will continue? However, may I press her and the Government on sex and relationships education guidance to schools? The message from headteachers is overwhelming: they desperately need clearer, simpler, straightforward guidance that they can hold up to parents, governors and everyone else to make sure that no child in this country goes without inclusive relationships education. (911888)

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It will not be my last Women and Equalities questions; I just may be sitting in a different place. I agree, absolutely, that guidance is incredibly important. The work that the Department for Education has been doing has been making good progress on that. I think we need to have absolute clarity on these issues, and I am confident that the Department for Education is doing that.