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Women and Equalities

Volume 666: debated on Thursday 17 October 2019

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Gender Recognition Act 2004

1. When she plans to publish the Government’s response to their consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. (900023)

The issue of the response to the consultation on the Act is very important. It needs time for consideration, and I will want to study it closely.

Last night, at the PinkNews awards, Baroness Williams of Trafford, the House of Lords Minister for Equalities, said, “bear with us” on gender recognition reforms. Quite frankly, Minister, that is not good enough for people who are already going through one of the most difficult experiences they will ever face—more difficult than we can possibly imagine. They face abuse, discrimination and even, sadly, violence, just because of who they are. So I ask the Minister again: when will we see the results of the consultation, and can she assure me, and the people who are waiting on those results, that the most right-wing Government in decades will follow through on the GRA?

I completely condemn bullying or violence towards trans people, but I do not think that that could be confused with the complex piece of work that is the reform to the Gender Recognition Act. In particular, I will not be rushed into it. I am very keen that we protect single-sex spaces and vulnerable women, and that we do not rush into reform before we have had full, proper discussion.

I welcome the Minister to her new position and look forward to working with her on all these issues. I am losing count, but I think she is the fifth Minister whom I have shadowed since I have occupied this position. However, we do not start from the beginning every time we change Ministers.

Reform of the Gender Recognition Act was promised in 2016. The Minister does not need to look at it carefully; the Minister just needs to expose what came out of the consultation and amend the Act as promised. The Minister needs to stop kicking the can down the road. There has been a 37% increase in hate crime against transgender people, and the Minister is exacerbating the pain and the hurt in the LGBT+ community. Please, Minister, just reform the Gender Recognition Act already.

As I have said, I completely condemn violence against trans people, and we and the Home Office are doing a lot of work to combat it, but I think it is completely wrong to conflate that with a complex piece of legislation that we need to get right. There are serious concerns about single-sex spaces and ensuring that vulnerable women are protected, and we should get the legislation right rather than rushing into things.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is trying to make this into a political football. What I am interested in is making the right decisions for the people of Britain so that we have proper protection for transgender people and also ensure that we protect our single-sex spaces.

Gender Pay Gap

This is the third year of gender pay gap reporting. We are focusing on the three sectors that employ the most women, and also on those with large gender pay gaps, such as financial services. Work is already under way on, for instance, the independent review of the gender pay gap in medicine, the recommendations of which will be published shortly. I am delighted that experts on the Women’s Business Council are helping us with our work in the retail and financial sectors in particular.

The Scottish Government have lowered the threshold for listed public authorities to report their gender pay gaps and publish equal pay statements from more than 150 employees to more than 20. Will the UK Government consider lowering their threshold as well to increase equal-pay transparency?

I am delighted to hear what the Scottish Government are doing. We keep that and other measures under review. As I have said, this is the third year of reporting, and we are delighted that thus far there has been 100% compliance. We must look at the data carefully, but everything is open to review. What is brilliant about this legislation is that for the first time, 10,500 employers in the country are talking about how they treat their female workers.

Last year in Motherwell and Wishaw, women working full-time earned an average of 10% less than their male counterparts. For women who are already struggling with Tory austerity—for example, the capping of universal credit at two children—a 10% increase in pay would make a huge difference. What are the Government doing to help those women, and women across the country?

The hon. Lady will be delighted by the Chancellor’s announcement that we are increasing the national living wage. As she will know, 60% of people who are paid the living wage are women, so that increase will have a huge impact on many women. The hon. Lady and I can agree on at least this: we want women to be treated properly and fairly in the workplace, and I am sure that we all want to close that gap.

Flexible working gives many parents with young children an equal chance to work, and they would therefore support the narrowing of the gender pay gap. Does my hon. Friend agree that all job advertisements should specify whether the jobs are flexible, and that employees should have the right to request that flexibility?

Very much so. My hon. Friend is right to mention flexible working and childcare. The message for employers is that flexible working not only improves diversity in their business models, but helps the bottom line. It is good for business, it is good for our country, and I think that, in particular, it is good for women to have the ability to earn their own incomes and to have the independence that we all cherish in this place.

Does the Minister agree that the Conservatives have actually done more than any other Government to tackle the issue of pay inequality at work? What more is she doing to help women in the boardroom who do not earn as much as their male counterparts?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on women and equalities and also on menopause. [Interruption.] I note that Opposition Members are laughing and guffawing, but these issues have a real impact on women who are the lowest paid. I am delighted if it means that the Labour party is supporting gender pay gap regulations, because it was a Conservative coalition Government who introduced the regulations and a Conservative Government who brought them into force two years ago. We need to ensure that employers are treating female employees correctly and properly, and that we are tackling that in the lowest paid sectors. That is why we have the three priority sectors of retail, healthcare and education that are working to bring action plans forward to ensure that we help the lowest paid.

May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to congratulate you on your PinkNews award, and your inspirational and outstanding speech? Trans rights are human rights.

In the previous Queen’s Speech, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) pledged to make further progress to tackle the gender pay gap, but that was noticeably absent from this week’s Queen’s Speech. Does that mean that the current Prime Minister does not want to reduce the gender pay gap?

I thank the hon. Lady for her very gracious remarks; I apologise for my inattention. It is much appreciated.

Mr Speaker, forgive me for not congratulating you on your award. My right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) also received an award last night at the PinkNews celebrations.

On the question, that most certainly does not mean that this Prime Minister is in any way not committed to improving the gender pay gap. The fact that we have a strong ministerial team on the Front Bench today is a very clear indication of how seriously the Government take this issue. Having got the regulations in place, we are now working with industries to ensure that we are helping them achieve those action plans so that they can make the change. This has to be led with business; we have to bring business and employers with us to make this real cultural change.

As we begin to understand the gender pay gap, does the Minister agree that, because the race pay gap is bigger than the gender pay gap, we should start to compel companies to publish their figures on that?

That is a very good question, and I would expect no less from the hon. Lady. We are looking closely at ethnicity pay gaps. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is present on the Front Bench, is leading on that work, and it is really important. We have been talking to industry leads and stakeholders in the third sector, and the hon. Lady will appreciate that quite how it is defined is not as easy as it is for the gender pay gap, but there is a great deal of work going on in Government to look at it.

Gender Equality in Boardrooms

3. What steps the Government are taking to increase gender equality in boardrooms in the (a) private and (b) public sector. (900026)

Women represent half of the population, and I believe that we are missing out on a huge amount of talent because we do not have enough women in senior positions. I commend the work of Helena Morrissey who has achieved fantastic results with the 30% Club.

I do a lot of work with science and technology companies and there is still a struggle in many of them to get women into senior positions or get women in at all. We have been using the carrot for decades now to try to get more women into the boardroom; when are we going to start using the stick?

The hon. Lady talks about science and technology, and one of the big issues is the gap that we have in school education, with fewer girls going on to study maths and science later in their school careers and girls losing confidence earlier on in their school careers. The way for us to tackle that it is to improve our education system, which is why we introduced things such as the English baccalaureate and tougher maths GCSEs, and why we are working more on maths education. I am passionate about this, and I am very keen to drive it forward as Minister for Women and Equalities.

The construction industry is notoriously male-dominated, so will the Minister join me in congratulating Caroline Gumble, who has just become chief exec of the Chartered Institute of Building, of which I am a very proud member?

I completely agree: as well as Bob the builder, we need Brenda the builder. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent on her fantastic achievement. In every walk of life, it should not matter whether someone is a woman or a man; it should matter how good they are and how much effort they put into the job. That is what we champion on this side of the House. We believe that it is about someone’s qualities as an individual, not what group they belong to.

12. Does the Minister agree with me and the many women in my constituency who believe that International Women’s Day could be made a public holiday? That would raise all the issues that we have been talking about today and give them focus. (900035)

I have to say that my focus in this job is not on bank holidays; it is on getting more women into work and getting them up the career ladder once they are in jobs. However, if the hon. Gentleman is offering to take on some work while women have a day off, I am sure that we would be very interested in that.

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee has nine members, eight of whom are women. Will the Minister encourage the Bank to employ more women in senior roles, and the Chancellor to appoint more women when he gets the chance?

The hon. Lady is right. I describe finance as the final frontier for feminism. We have never had a female Chancellor, and we have never had a female Governor of the Bank of England. The Governor’s job is coming up very shortly, so I am sure that the Chancellor will hear what the hon. Lady has to say.

Sexual Harassment and Bullying at Work

4. What recent steps the Government have taken to improve protections from (a) sexual harassment and (b) bullying at work. (900027)

In the summer, we ran a consultation to understand people’s experiences of workplace sexual harassment and to assess whether the law in this space needs changing. Our consultation also included wider harassment protections, which cover many bullying behaviours. We are now considering the responses that we received, and we will publish proposals in due course.

Last week, a partner at Freshfields solicitors was ordered by a professional tribunal to pay more than a quarter of a million pounds for sexual misconduct with a junior colleague. Should not every regulator treat actions of sexual misconduct as a breach of professional standards? If the regulators do not act, will the Government?

I thank my right hon. Friend, who as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee has done so much work on ensuring that employers’ and regulators’ responsibilities in the area are met. I welcome—indeed, I encourage—strong action from regulators to stamp out sexual harassment. We are working with relevant enforcement bodies and inviting them to join our public sector equality duty network to share and promote best practice. We are particularly focusing on regulators of specific relevance, to explore how they can support compliance with equality law.

The #MeToo movement was inspired—if that is the right word—by the activities of Harvey Weinstein in the film industry. Despite all their celebrity, many of the women affected did not feel able to turn to anyone when they encountered bullying and harassment in the workplace. That is all the more true for women today, particularly in small businesses. What is the Minister doing to ensure that women have legal and present support? Does she agree that the fact that Harvey Weinstein remains honoured by the British state with a CBE is a terrible indictment of our honours system?

Of course, the #MeToo movement met with a great deal of attention and support across the world. In terms of sexual harassment, the consultation that closed on 2 October looked at all sorts of workplaces across the United Kingdom, and we are looking at responses to it very, very carefully. The hon. Lady will appreciate that it is only just over two weeks since the consultation closed and I do not want to pre-empt anything. In terms of Mr Weinstein, I cannot comment on individual cases; his case will be dealt with in the US.

Pensions: 1950s-born Women

5. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s since the High Court judgment of 3 October 2019. (900028)

6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s since the High Court judgment of 3 October 2019. (900029)

9. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the implications for the Government’s policies of the High Court judgment of 3 October 2019 on the increase in the state pension age for women born in the 1950s. (900032)

The claimants applied for permission to appeal on 16 October 2019, which was of course yesterday. Hon. Members will therefore understand that I cannot comment on live litigation.

Thousands of women across my constituency and millions nationally continue to face real hardship from this inequality. What steps is the Minister taking, in conjunction with the Department for Work and Pensions, to address their real concerns and distress and to provide equality?

I thank the hon. Lady for this opportunity to comment on the wider picture. As the Minister for employment with responsibility for jobcentres, I would tell anybody experiencing hardship at any point in their life to go to the jobcentre and to speak to their local citizens advice bureau—[Interruption.] The jobcentres do so much more than help people into work. They are a place of safety if you are suffering domestic violence, if you are looking to get support on benefits or if you are looking for housing support. It is a severe frustration for me as the Minister that people simply do not understand that jobcentres do much more than help people into work.

Yesterday, along with many other colleagues in this House, I met a group of 1950s women who have been affected by the changes to the state pension age. Having been silenced while other groups took legal action, they are frustrated that they are still no further forward. What concrete actions will the Minister now take to help those women and give them the justice they deserve?

I appreciate that this will look and feel frustrating to many women because of the legal action and the live litigation, but I absolutely believe that we are trying to find a balance in our Department in supporting people of all ages at all points in their lives when they need support and ensuring that we are balancing an ageing demographic and a secure retirement.

I am grateful to the Minister for those replies, but notwithstanding the High Court decision and the appeal, there are thousands of women in my constituency who were born in the 1950s and who are affected. They find the support and advice measures that have been put in place inadequate, and I ask the Minister to liaise with the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look again at this issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I absolutely understand that this is about a sense of balance. I reiterate my point that we have a wide range of benefits and support in the jobcentres—[Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) disagrees, I would be happy to meet her to say more. It is absolutely right that if the support is not there, people should come to the jobcentres, speak to me and get involved with the DWP. We will support these women. This is ultimately about equality. We now have no defined retirement age for anyone: anyone who can work can continue to do so, and for anyone who wants to have a secure retirement, we will support them.

As a WASPI woman, may I say on behalf of the many women who have come to me about this matter that we have been caught in a sandwich generation? We had our children young and brought them up, then acted as carers looking after our mums. This is causing big problems for women caught up in this dilemma. They are now finding themselves in the job market, having had very disrupted careers. That is what is so difficult for those women, when they are suddenly being asked to retrain in their 60s. It is really causing big problems.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The women issue and the work journey are absolutely a priority for me in this role. Universal credit is not a gender-specific fund. It focuses on individual needs and support, and that can be different for men and women. I am absolutely determined, in this role, along with the new Secretary of State, to ensure that we better reflect the women’s work journey, including returning to work.

Women Leaving Prison

We remain committed to delivering on the commitments laid out in the female offender strategy, which sets out our vision to see fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, a greater proportion being managed successfully in the community and better conditions for those in custody. Currently, women leaving prison are supported under the enhanced Through the Gate service specification implemented in April 2019. This new specification includes defined minimum support requirements such as accommodation, employment, training and education, finance, benefits and debt, and health and social care.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but we are seeing an increased number of people affected by homelessness and addiction problems across the streets of my city of Hull, many of whom have left prison. In addition to the things that she has already mentioned, what more can be done to support women leaving prison to prevent them from ending up homeless, and what more can be done while they are in prison to deal with their addiction problems?

I know that the hon. Lady takes an interest in this topic and has a prison in her constituency. Alongside the enhanced Through the Gate service specification, resettlement planning is led by the probation officer in the community where the offender is to be released, making it easier to connect into local services such as women’s centres. We also want greater involvement from voluntary organisations with the expertise to support offenders leaving prison.

Ministers will be aware of the campaigning work done by Bishop Rachel Treweek of Gloucester and others to encourage non-custodial sentences for women, and the Minister for Women, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), visited the Nelson Trust in my constituency, which does so much to help ex-prisoners. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will know that many women who leave prison do not have a suitable home to go. What more can we do to provide suitable accommodation for such women?

As I have set out, we have the enhanced Through the Gate service specification, but I am more than happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. I would be interested to know a little bit more about the particular project to which he referred.

Today, Mr Speaker, with my voice, I am going to be Bonnie Tyler. [Laughter.]

One in six women leaves prison with no home to go to. A combination of homelessness, a lack of job opportunities, and the stigma of being an ex-offender is setting up these women to fail and is undoubtedly responsible for the disproportionate number of recalls. The Government have to do more to help these women, who have to be able to escape the vicious circle. What are the Government going to do for these women?

In addition to the Through the Gate service, I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of the social impact bond. In June of last year, we published our strategy for female offenders, setting out our vision and a plan to improve outcomes for women in custody and in the community. Like her, I am keen to do all that we can to help women who are leaving custody.

Topical Questions

My vision as Minister for Women and Equalities is to ensure that everyone has the freedom to be whoever they want to be and to shape their own future, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or disability. I was proud to open the Asia chapter of the Global Equality Caucus during my recent visit to Japan, and I look forward to building on the excellent work of this Government: from ensuring 12 years of quality education for every girl internationally to removing the barriers that stop women getting on at work and bringing LGBT leaders from across the world together in May next year. Together we can make Britain the best place in the world to be a woman and to be LGBT.

The Child Maintenance Service is failing receiving claimants, most of whom are women. Will the Minister introduce tighter monitoring of direct pay compliance, stop collect and pay charges for receiving parents, and finally introduce a service that ensures effective enforcement of late payments?

I am happy to hear details of where the Child Maintenance Service is a concern. The Minister for Welfare Delivery is working directly to support families in this area. As I said, I am happy to hear the details, so please write to us and we will come back to the hon. Gentleman.

T4. Bullying and harassment that particularly affect women have no place in any workplace anywhere in the world. When will the Government ratify the new International Labour Organisation global convention that outlaws such offences? This Government led the way on that convention when it was established earlier this year. (900041)

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend, who has brought a laser-like focus on bullying and harassment in all places of work. The Government and I strongly support this convention, which seeks to ensure that women and men around the world are properly protected at work. Our law makes it clear that violence and harassment at work are unacceptable and unlawful, and our next steps will be to consider how we will ratify this and bring this new treaty to the attention of Parliament.

T2. May I remind the Minister that next year marks 50 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970, and much of the progress has been made because of our membership of the European Union? I took the first petition on equal pay and sex discrimination to the EU in 1977. Much of the progress has been made because the EU has pushed us and many Labour Members campaigned for many years. How much longer are we going to have to wait? Is it going to be another 50 years? (900039)

I do not believe that we need the EU in order to have strong rights for women in Britain; I believe that we British women are strong enough to stand up for ourselves.

We have a gender gap not just in the workplace, but among entrepreneurs; one in 10 men in work are entrepreneurs, whereas only one in 20 women are. What does the Minister think would be the best way to address that?

My hon. Friend is right about this, particularly in respect of funding. Female-led businesses are getting less funding from venture capital than male-led businesses. We want to address these barriers and open up entrepreneurship to women across the country. We are lagging behind places such as Canada and Australia, and we need to do better.

T3. I am sure the Minister will agree that all women deserve equal protection under the law, no matter where they come from. Indeed, I have had positive conversations with Ministers about including migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill, but can she tell us when she will be able to commit to including them specifically in that Bill? (900040)

I thank the hon. Lady and all Members of this House who contributed so positively and, on occasion, movingly to the Second Reading debate on this important piece of legislation. She knows that the Government are conducting a review of the treatment of migrant women, because we have very much borne in mind the findings of the Joint Committee, chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). That review is ongoing and as soon as I have more news I promise that the hon. Lady will be among the parliamentarians I speak to.

In Cheadle, Northern Rail has responded positively to my campaign for lift accessibility for people with disabilities by giving 24-hour access, but not every disability is visible—some are invisible. Does the Minister agree that we should support people and help to promote the need for accessible toilet signage?

Absolutely, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on campaigning so hard on behalf of her constituents and working with Northern Rail. She is right about this. The inclusive transport strategy covers not only visible disabilities, but those that are invisible, and we are about to undertake a huge communications campaign to make people with all disabilities comfortable and confident to use our public transport system.

T5. Audio-visual announcements on buses are vital to enable people with sight loss or hearing loss to travel with confidence. The UK Government’s consultation ended more than a year ago, in September 2018, with no further progress, so what discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the Department for Transport to bring forward this important measure? (900042)

This is a key piece of our work in the inclusive transport strategy, especially as buses are the form of transport used most often by people with disabilities. We are crunching the data we have and we are hoping to make this available soon, but the inclusive transport strategy abides by the United Nations’ aims to make sure that all of our transport is accessible by 2030.

Sexual harassment online is a major issue for many women. Will the Minister examine the issues of cyber-flashing and revenge porn to make sure that victims are given the proper legal protections from those as sexual offences?

My hon. Friend raises a point that concerns many in the House and outside. I am currently doing a piece of work on online offences and look forward to the development of the online harms White Paper, because I suspect that many of the answers we all seek will be in that documentation.

T6. Endometriosis UK found that 476,000 British women had to visit their GP more than 11 times for a positive diagnosis, and that their pain was often dismissed as being psychological. What steps is the Minister taking to eliminate gender bias in the diagnosis of health conditions? (900043)

On the particular issue of endometriosis, I will have to write back to the hon. Lady, but being wrongly diagnosed as having a mental health condition is incredibly serious, and we are looking into rolling out training to GPs to help them better to diagnose mental health conditions. I will use this opportunity to say again that we are investing £2.3 billion a year in mental health services in the community, and hopefully that will go into GP practices and GPs will know not to make those kinds of diagnoses in future. I will get back to the hon. Lady on that particular condition.

When she was Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) committed to the House to introduce legislation to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010. When will the current Minister for Women and Equalities and her team bring forward legislation so that we can end this bizarre and divisive situation?

It is a pleasure, as always, to respond to my hon. Friend on this important piece of work. I am in the process of discussing this with the Secretary of State, and we hope to have an answer for him shortly.

T7. In the spirit of equality, the Electoral Reform Society has said that compulsory photo ID for voters will potentially leave millions of voters voiceless. Some 3.5 million voters have no photo ID at all, with the most affected being the elderly, ethnic minorities and those who are socially disadvantaged. Is it not the case that the suppression of voter participation is dangerous and will exclude many from exercising their democratic rights? (900044)

It is perfectly proper that we make sure that the right people are voting and that they bring ID with them to the polling to station. We have had issues with electoral fraud in this country.

T8. During the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign, he promised to look into the impact of the changes in state pension age for women. Will the Minister commit to working with the Prime Minister to provide transitional arrangements for the women of the 1950s, who have been hit hardest? (900045)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue again. Obviously, with the litigation ongoing it is difficult for me to comment more broadly, but I understand that that comment was made by the Prime Minister. If people are suffering and need any support, they should go to their jobcentre, talk to their local citizens advice bureau and make sure that they ask for help. We have many different benefits, both in retirement and after retirement, to support people to have a good, secure retirement. This issue should not affect anyone—women or men.