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Women and Equalities

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women In Public Office

1. What steps she is taking to encourage women to enter (a) politics, (b) the judiciary and (c) other public office. (901466)

This House now has 220 women MPs, which is a record. I believe that it is through transparency and meritocracy that we bring more great people into the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being one of the first three Welsh female Conservative MPs.

Eighty-one per cent. of Wrexham county councillors are male. I am the first female Conservative MP for Wales and one could ask why it has taken so long, although that is for a different debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Women2Win Wales and the Women’s Equality Network of Cardiff are vital and essential when trying to equalise the gender balance in higher public office?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Anybody who has met Baroness Jenkin will know that she is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She does not just ask women to stand; she tells them to stand—and she has made it happen.

The Centenary Action Group reports that only some of the diversity data on candidates seeking parliamentary nomination is collected and published; that is because it is currently voluntary. I hope that the Minister agrees that that is simply not good enough, so today will she either commit to enacting section 106 of the 10-year-old Equality Act or at least explain why she refuses to do so?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that more transparency is always helpful in highlighting where we need better opportunities for people to get into public life and politics, but we have to recognise that it is partly down to political parties to show that leadership and make that happen within their own organisations.

Period Poverty

Last year, NHS England announced that it would offer period products to every hospital patient who needs them, and the Home Office announced plans to change the law to provide period products to those in police custody. In January this year, the Department for Education launched a scheme to provide access to free products in state-funded schools across England.

That is welcome progress, although I would suggest that domestically there is still some work to do.

ActionAid tells us that one in 10 girls in Africa misses school because they do not have access to sanitary products or even private toilets. The Government have a target of eradicating period poverty in developing countries by 2030 and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) has introduced a Bill to improve transparency on that. Will the Minister meet me and my hon. Friend to discuss our Bill?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I am sure that we welcome the Bill. In 2019, the Department for International Development announced a global campaign of action on this very issue—to end period poverty globally by 2030. The global campaign was kick-started with an allocation of up to £2 million for the small and medium-sized charities working on period poverty in DFID’s priority countries.

A recent report by Women’s Aid shows that almost half of domestic abuse survivors living in refuges do not have enough money to pay for essentials. Schools, prisons and hospitals now provide free sanitary products for women and girls, so when can we expect victims of domestic abuse living in refuges, and their daughters, to be extended the same courtesy?

The hon. Lady makes an absolutely essential point. The tampon tax fund has dealt with a number of these points; it was established in 2015 to allocate funds generated from VAT on period products to protect vulnerable women and girls on this very issue.

Affordable Childcare

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901468)

5. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901470)

13. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901478)

Over 1 million children are benefiting from the Government’s investment in early years entitlements, which can save their parents up to £5,000 every year. In the next financial year, we plan to spend £3.6 billion on this. Furthermore, our manifesto commits to another £1 billion for more wraparound and holiday childcare places from 2021. We have already started working on the details.

Further to my hon. Friend’s answer, what is being done to increase the availability of affordable childcare for parents with disabled children who may require more specialist provision?

Disabled children get an extra 15 hours of early years education from the age of two, and their parents can also receive extra support through tax-free childcare of up to £4,000 per child per year until the child is 17. The disability access fund also gives providers £615 per eligible child to support access to those early years settings.

I welcome the fact that, in their manifesto, this Conservative Government announced £1 billion for the flexible childcare fund, but, in light of the recent outbreak of coronavirus in Staffordshire, may I ask what extra provision the Government are providing for wraparound childcare while this epidemic continues?

Coronavirus is the top priority, and we must follow medical and scientific advice. Public Health England continues to advise schools and settings, and that includes early years settings, to remain open unless otherwise advised. We are aware of concerns from early years providers about potential closures and are working to minimise the impact. This is a top priority. In the meantime, there is a dedicated helpline for schools and their parents. Mr Speaker, the helpline number for schools and parents is 0800 0468687.

On a recent visit to the Overton Playcentre in my constituency of Clwyd South, the manager, Rachel Harris, described the childcare offer that they deliver to parents as “life-changing”. Does the Minister agree that the seamless transition that is offered by the Overton Playcentre between its childcare and the education at the nearby St Mary’s Church in Wales Primary School, with which they work very closely, offers an effective model for maximising the availability of affordable childcare?

May I pass on my congratulations to the Overton Playcentre? It is absolutely great when we see a pre-school and early years establishment work together with schools in the best interests of children. It really does make a difference. Last year, nearly three out of every four children were reaching a good level of development by the time they ended reception, and that is up from just one in two back in 2013. That is partly due to excellent playgroups and schools working together such as those in Clwyd South.

The SNP is transforming childcare and the lives of parents in Scotland with our commitment to the most generous offer in the UK. Currently, 600 hours are provided per year to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds. We are increasing that to 1,140 hours from August this year. Why have the UK Government not yet matched that offer?

This UK Government are the most generous provider of childcare. Early entitlements for children in England is up £3.6 billion this year for 30 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds plus an extra 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds. It saves up to £5,000 per child per year. Furthermore, tax-free childcare gives every parent a maximum of another £2,000 per annum for every child, which goes up to £4,000 for children with disabilities.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the helpline for early years providers worried about the corona- virus, but she will know that Lou Simmons, the owner of Abbottswood Day Nursery in my constituency, contacted me because the helpline was unable to give the answers that providers need. What assurance can my hon. Friend the Minister give that that helpline is now up to speed and that early years providers are getting the right information in a timely fashion?

I am aware of early years providers’ concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus. Early years providers give vital support to families and children, and it is important that they follow the advice to stay open. It is a top priority for me to give them the reassurance they need, and I will make that announcement as soon as possible.

My constituent is studying to be a teacher, but has had to pull back from her course because of the way in which universal credit interacts with student finance. Will the Minister look at this issue urgently to ensure that women are not discouraged from bettering themselves and their own lives because of the way in which the universal credit system works?

The universal credit system can give up to 85% of childcare costs, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is happy to meet the hon. Member to follow up on that point.

Flexible Working

The Government are clear about the benefits of flexible working for employers and employees. Last year, we consulted on proposals to require large employers to publish flexible working policies and to advertise jobs as suitable for flexible working, and we will respond to that consultation in due course. Since then, we have committed in our manifesto to make flexible working the default. Subject to consultation, we will bring forward these new measures in our employment Bill.

The majority of unpaid carers in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are women caring for young children or elderly relatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that increasing opportunities to work flexibly will benefit women by sharing caring duties more equally, and will ultimately lead to more equality for women in work and more opportunities for women to get into work?

My hon. Friend is working on a modern “silicon Stoke”, and to get that he needs modern working practices. Flexible working helps people with a range of needs to remain in and to access work, including mothers, carers and parents. We want to give everybody a choice to determine how best they can balance their home and work life, including fathers. Flexible working can give them that choice, which is why we are keen to do more.

Women’s Life Expectancy: Disadvantaged Areas

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on improving life expectancy among women living in disadvantaged areas. (901471)

Life expectancy at birth in England is the highest that it has ever been. Every single person deserves to lead a long, healthy life, no matter who they are or where they live. This Government have been clear that we will address the needs of all those who have been left behind.

Well, that is not true for women in the poorest communities in our country, is it? The Marmot review shows that life expectancy has fallen for women in the poorest communities. Frankly, that is what happens after 10 years of public service cuts and falling living standards. When are the Government going to take responsibility for the misery they have inflicted on the poorest women in the country?

I thank the hon. Member for explaining women’s health inequalities to me, but I fully support the Government’s commitment to delivering £33.9 billion of investment in the NHS—the largest cash boost in its history—which will make reducing health inequalities for all possible.

Will the Minister explain what action is being taken to support women—especially black and minority ethnic women, and single mothers—who have faced not only disproportionately more poverty under years of austerity, but also the greatest barriers to work? How are Ministers breaking down barriers to lift those women out of the poverty that this Government have put them in?

The hon. Member specifically asks about women from the poorest backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), for the work she is doing in this regard. Through the long-term plan, the NHS will accelerate action to achieve 50% reductions in stillbirths, maternal mortality, neonatal mortality and serious brain injury by 2025, which specifically affect those women the most.

Office for Disability Issues

7. For what reason responsibility for the Office for Disability Issues transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Equalities Hub in the Cabinet Office. (901472)

The Office for Disability Issues transferred to the Cabinet Office from the Department for Work and Pensions in November 2019. It joined the race disparity unit and the Government Equalities Office to be part of the new Equalities Hub in the Cabinet Office. The new cross-departmental disability unit will work closely with disabled people, and disabled people’s organisations and charities, to rightly bring disabled voices into the heart of Government.

Ministers will be aware that the DWP is currently preparing a cross-government national disability strategy. At the same time, the DWP has lost the cross-government Office for Disability Issues, as it has been subsumed into the Cabinet Office’s Equalities Hub. Do the Government believe that this will enhance or detract from the eventual national disability strategy? It must surely be to its detriment.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and highlighting that it is part of the Cabinet Office’s Equalities Hub. In the meantime, the Department for Work and Pensions is bringing forward a Green Paper in the coming months to see how the welfare system can work with our claimants and people with health conditions. We have already done roundtables and workshops on this. This is a priority for this Government and my Department. Whether it sits in the Cabinet Office or not, it remains a priority that we will work together on.

Women Living in Poverty

Work offers the best opportunity to move out of poverty, irrespective of gender. We are proud that the female employment rate under this Government is at a record high of 72.4%, with nearly 2 million more women in work than back in 2010. Wages have outpaced inflation for 23 consecutive months. Shortly, from April, the national living wage will increase again, also benefiting women the most.

But a recent report by Welsh charity Chwarae Teg highlights the fact that 38% of women in Wales on universal credit are in work compared with 29% of men. What is the Minister doing to ensure that there is strong action in the Budget to tackle women’s in-work poverty?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Wales and opportunities for women is an issue close to my heart—she will know that. I had my best opportunities working in Wales, and I want that to extend to everyone. Universal credit will offer 85% of childcare costs. The flexible support fund also helps women into work. I would urge all women to take the opportunity to go into their jobcentre and ask about the mix of benefits and support they can get. But one particular issue always holds women back, and that is confidence. Women should feel confident that they can go for it under this Government and under universal credit.

I speak to many mothers in Dudley South who say that they want to return to work but the level of childcare costs means that it is not financially worthwhile. What action are the Government taking to help parents to return to work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Under this Government, ensuring opportunities for women’s progression is an absolute priority for me, the Secretary of State and the Department for Work and Pensions. The fact that women get more childcare costs under universal credit is really important. Under the legacy system the figure was 70%, and under universal credit it is 85%. People should not forget the flexible support fund, which means that they can return to work at any time. If they talk to their jobcentre, it can help them with that.

Ensuring opportunities for women’s progression absolutely is a priority, as I have already said at the Dispatch Box this morning. We need to see what the barriers are. Sometimes confidence about returning opportunities is minimal. We are using our fuller working lives policy and strategy. Tomorrow I will be in Newcastle talking to women returners to see what is holding them back. It is about time that women got the progression and the pay rises they deserve.

Topical Questions

Over the past week, we have been holding a number of brilliant International Women’s Day celebrations, including a lively debate here in the House, the launch of The House magazine’s list of the 100 most influential women in Westminster, and last night a fantastic event at the US embassy celebrating brilliant transatlantic women. I was hugely inspired by the year 9 girls looking at careers in science with the Prime Minister last week at No. 10. We have a brilliant generation of young women coming through.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she is doing to improve opportunities for women in this country and across the world. However, what steps are the Government taking to support and encourage disabled candidates seeking office in the forthcoming local and police and crime commissioner elections?

We want to encourage more people with disabilities to come forward. They often face extra challenges and costs. That is why we have extended the EnAble fund, to support disabled candidates in local elections and police and crime commissioner elections.

Can the Minister confirm that the disproportionate impact on women was specifically considered at the recent Cobra meeting dealing with the effects of coronavirus? Our country’s social infrastructure has been weakened by this Government’s cuts—86% of the cuts have fallen on women. The gig economy and zero-hours contracts have affected women more than any other group, hence the rise of in-work poverty. Caring responsibilities and volunteer work in our country are built on an army of women and grand- parents—the system is dependent on unpaid work by older women. What provisions have the Government made to address the adverse impact on women?

We have shown that we have delivered for women. We have a record number of women in work. We have more girls than ever studying science, technology, engineering and maths, with a 30% increase at A-level and an increase in the number of women studying STEM degrees. I suggest to the hon. Lady that her party should show a bit of leadership by enacting a female Labour leader.

T2. On Sunday, I played netball for the first time since university at Clanfield sports and community centre with mothers and children. What is my hon. Friend doing to encourage more women and girls into sport? (901482)

We want to get more women and girls embracing sport and physical activity. Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign has already inspired 3.9 million women to get active. Sport England is encouraging more women to work in sport, including coaching and volunteering. We are hosting the Euro women’s football championship next year and the Commonwealth games in 2022, which will no doubt encourage even more women and girls to take up sport.

T6. TUC analysis shows that 70% of the 1.8 million workers who do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay are women. Over a third are in insecure work or on zero-hours contracts, including many in my constituency. Will the Government agree to the TUC’s calls for the threshold to be removed as part of the emergency powers being brought forward? (901487)

My Department is looking at everything to support people to stay in work. Our welfare system treats people as individuals and all genders equally. However, the upcoming legislation on this issue will be suitable for looking at everyone. For those on universal credit, that will be the right way to adjust for the money that they need. If people need any further help or support, they should contact their jobcentre. If they are unable to attend due to self-isolation, they should let their work coach know. We are prepared to support everyone through every eventuality, while protecting public health.

T3. If schools and nurseries in Hyndburn are forced to close because of coronavirus, the burden of care will inevitably fall on women. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that they will be supported, especially if they end up losing money due to caring responsibilities? (901483)

Schools and nurseries need to take the latest scientific advice, which at the moment is to stay open. Employees are entitled to take time off work to help someone who depends on them in an emergency, and that would apply to situations to do with coronavirus—for example, if they have to look after their children because the school is closed. There is no statutory right to pay for that time off, but some enlightened employers will pay.

T4. Has there been any discussion with the Department for International Trade regarding the fair payment of women farmers in any trade deals post Brexit as a foundational principle? (901485)

We are determined to ensure that we protect our fantastic food safety standards in any trade deal that we do. The hon. Gentleman will welcome, as I do, the fact that the US has lifted its ban on British beef, benefiting British beef farmers—particularly the Ladies in Beef group, which represents women beef farmers.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend think that those from the left constantly attacking our fantastic first female Prime Minister, saying female Ministers should be lynched or constantly attacking our superb female Home Secretary help to encourage women into politics? (901486)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was a despicable cartoon about the Home Secretary in the weekend’s Guardian. She is doing a brilliant job—fighting crime, getting our new immigration system in place—and it is the hypocrisy of those on the left that, when it is not a woman they agree with, they do everything they can to undermine her.

A consultation on accessible housing was announced in June 2019 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but has not happened. Can the Minister say when the consultation will take place, and will he meet me and representatives of wheelchair users to discuss it?

We have been working across Government on accessible housing provision, and will consult in a matter of weeks on options to raise the accessibility standards in new homes. The consultation will consider making high accessibility standards mandatory, recognising the importance of suitable homes for old and disabled people. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member.