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Women and Equalities

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

LGBT Rights

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that the UK remains a world leader for LGBT rights. (902288)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that the UK remains a world leader for LGBT rights. (902297)

I am proud that we are one of the leading countries in the world for LGBT rights. The UK will host an international LGBT conference, chaired by Nick Herbert. The theme is “Safe to be me”. It will focus on asking countries to tackle the persecution of LGBT people, including ending violence and discrimination.

The Government have a strong record on LGBT rights, especially the introduction of equal marriage, which I am proud to have campaigned for. We have come a long way, but there is still work to be done. Can my right hon. Friend tell me why a married monogamous gay couple living in High Peak cannot donate blood or plasma, including for the ongoing and vital covid-19 trial?

I appreciate that many gay and bisexual men want to contribute to the efforts to fight this virus. The rules that specify the conditions for donating blood are from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs. I am taking up this matter with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to see what changes could be made.

We have seen numerous reports that the covid lockdown is having a disproportionately negative impact on the LGBT+ community, here in Bishop Auckland and right across our country, particularly with regard to mental health, domestic abuse and homelessness. With the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia coming up on 17 May, what are the Government doing to ensure that LGBT+ people are receiving the support needed throughout the covid crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are ensuring that LGBT people get proper support during the covid crisis, including health support. In March, I extended the contract of Dr Michael Brady as our national adviser on LGBT healthcare. He is instrumental in ensuring that support is provided for LGBT people during this pandemic.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, gender identity clinics in England have had to reduce their services. While it is understandable that hospitals prioritise their services during this crisis, can the Minister assure the House that trans people will still be able to access the gender identity services they need during the crisis?

We absolutely want to ensure that all LGBT people are able to secure that support during the crisis. That is why we have extended the contract of Dr Michael Brady, and where we are able to provide those services we are ensuring that we do. I will follow up on the specific issue my hon. Friend raises with Dr Michael Brady to ensure that those services are available.

STEM Subjects

What recent assessment she has made of the trends in the level of uptake of STEM subjects by girls. (902290)

Since 2010, there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to science, technology, engineering and maths A-levels in England, and a 34% increase in the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK. Increasing the number of women in STEM industries is vital for our country’s economic success and also for equality of opportunity.

In Watford we have incredible, inspirational women and girls across the area. Watford girls school, for example, does incredible work in this space. How are we are supporting women, including those who are learning at school at the moment, into STEM roles, so that we can continue to showcase how Britain is playing a leading global role in science for all?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is still the case that women make up only 25% of those employed in manufacturing and 30% of those in information technology. We need more women in those fields to use their amazing talents. We are committed to removing the barriers to success for women and to celebrating those who have achieved, such as Ruth Amos of StairSteady, who has invented new areas of engineering, which we should continue to celebrate.

Equality of Opportunity

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for people throughout the UK. (902295)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for people throughout the UK. (902303)

As we turn the tide on covid-19, I want to ensure that the Cabinet Office equalities hub focuses on the evidence, and that everyone in the UK has their opportunity and does not face discrimination or barriers to success.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does she agree that, although they are not in the Equality Act 2010, we should have a firm focus on social background and social mobility, so that it is not the school someone went to, the family they come from or the area they grew up in that determines their life chances?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are restructuring the equalities hub so that it covers areas such as social background and geography. It will put world-class analysis and research at its heart, and I am proud that both the Department for International Trade and the equalities hub were named among the top 75 employers by the social mobility employer index, which I know my hon. Friend established.

Education is of course a key driver of social mobility—people would expect me to say no less, as a teacher myself. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the teachers and headteachers in Eastbourne, who are doing such a tremendous job looking after and educating the children of our key workers, particularly at Shinewater Primary School? Will she also outline what work the Equalities Office is doing with the Department for Education to ensure that those disadvantaged pupils in our schools do not suffer as a result of these very necessary school closures?

Order. Minister, can you pick out a question from that? We cannot continue like that; we have to get through the questions.

Let me put on the record my thanks to all the teachers across the country who are doing a brilliant job keeping our children educated using the latest technology. We are doing all we can to ensure that no child, whatever their background, is left behind during this crisis. We have already committed more than £100 million to boost remote learning, and we are funding access to IT devices and software, focused on the most disadvantaged.

Universal Basic Income

What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits for social equality of introducing a universal basic income. (902289)

A universal basic income is not the best way to deliver social equality because it is not targeted at those who need it most. In response to the covid-19 outbreak, the Government set out a substantial package of targeted measures to provide support to people affected by the coronavirus, which can be delivered quickly and effectively through existing systems.

The issue is, though, that people are still falling through the cracks. Does the Minister not accept that, from an equalities perspective, the best way to stop that is to take a universal approach? That is why the First Minister of Scotland has said that, increasingly, a universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. Instead of rejecting it out of hand, will the Government not consult with devolved Administrations, the relevant all-party parliamentary group and other interested expert organisations to see how a guaranteed minimum income could be made to work?

I am afraid that we disagree on this issue. While we are happy to continue the debate, the fact is that flat-rate payments make no allowance for additional help to cope with variable essential living costs, and fail to target those who need support, such as disabled people and lone parents. This universal way of providing support is not going to work well within our existing welfare system.

I am interested in this outright dismissal of a universal basic income, and in how, where and when this decision was reached. Given that those who will benefit the most from a UBI, contrary to what the Minister said, are the very people her Department is supposed to be fighting for, did she lose the argument or did she fail in her duty to advise her colleagues on what a difference a universal basic income could make to social equality?

I am not sure why the hon. Lady has chosen to take that stance. The fact is that many, many respected people think that a universal basic income is not what is right for this country. It lacks the flexibility to respond to changes in income—unlike universal credit—it is less redistributive, and it is certainly not something that we are considering at the moment.

Covid-19: BAME Communities

What steps her Department has taken to tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on BAME communities. (902306)

We are very concerned by reports of a disproportionate impact of covid-19 on ethnic minorities. It is important that we understand what is underpinning these disparities and that we have robust and accurate data to do so, in order to take effective action.

The Minister will be aware that of the 17 doctors who have died from covid-19, 16 are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. So will she be speaking to her ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health about the NHS surcharge for migrants? It cannot be right that NHS migrant workers, who are frequently BAME, pay twice for the NHS, first in taxation and then through the surcharge—and, increasingly, with their lives.

This is an issue that I have personally taken a keen interest in. It is one of the reasons we have commissioned Public Health England to review exactly what the impact is on ethnic minorities. Specifically on fees for migrants, migrants who are ordinarily resident in the UK already receive their NHS care for free. Many more are exempt from charges, including temporary migrants who pay the immigration health surcharge, and asylum seekers. However, it is important to note that we remain committed to fighting this virus, and that is why we changed our regulations in January to ensure that no overseas visitor or anyone living here would be charged for diagnosis of or treatment for covid.

Dr Amir Burney of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of Northern Europe and Dr Kashif Chauhan of the Nottinghamshire Doctors Families Association have both written to me raising concerns about the safety of BAME medical staff. They tell me that their members are scared. NHS trusts have reported problems in moving at-risk BAME NHS staff away from the frontline of the crisis, despite calls from Public England to do so. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the risk to BAME staff is properly assessed and their health and safety is properly protected?

The Public Health England review is going to look into this specific issue, but I must stress that we are working round the clock to protect everyone—absolutely everyone—on the frontline during this pandemic for as long as is required. NHS England has sent a letter to those running NHS care organisations recommending that employers should risk-assess staff as a precautionary measure to see if they are at greater risk and, if so, put other measures in place to protect them. That is something that will be going on around the country.

We heard on Monday from the Health Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Minister has reiterated it, about the importance of robust data. Is my hon. Friend confident that the right data is being collected at sufficient pace? Specifically, what input is the Government Equalities Office having into the work of Public Health England, and is she confident that we will find out not only why and how BAME communities are affected, but what needs to be done to protect them?

The Government Equalities Office is refocusing the equality hub. The race disparity unit, the GEO and the disability unit want to spend more time on research and data so that we can help to inform Government Departments on their activity. We want to become more evidence-led. The Public Health England review is going to fit in with this overall strategy. It will be analysing how different factors, including ethnicity, gender and age, can impact on people’s health outcomes from covid-19. We are confident that this review will be able to analyse available data on health outcomes for NHS staff as well. We expect it to be published at the end of May.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The British Medical Association found that black, Asian and minority ethnic doctors have been pushed to the frontline of this covid-19 crisis and that almost two thirds of them have felt pressured to work without vital personal protective equipment. This comes amid reports that 72% of all NHS workers’ deaths were of those from a BAME background. Finally, last week, Public Health England asked all NHS trusts to risk-assess their BAME staff and, where necessary, remove them from the frontline. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to monitor the impact of this new measure and ensure that no more workers are risking their lives to save lives?

This is something that we are keeping a close eye on. We are seeing a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, as I mentioned before, but NHS England is the right body to make the decisions on how each and every care organisation should look after its staff. We are not calling for ethnic minority medical staff to be taken off the frontline, as that would disproportionately impact ethnic minority communities, but we are doing everything that we can to ensure that they are protected. With regard to PPE, this is something, as I said earlier, that we have been working round the clock to deliver. We have had more than 1 billion items of PPE delivered to health organisations across the country, and we will continue to ensure that our frontline staff are very well protected.

Covid-19: Effect of School Closures

What assessment she has made of the effect of school closures in response to the covid-19 outbreak on the life chances of children from working-class backgrounds. (902296)

We are doing everything we can to ensure that no child, whatever their background, falls behind due to coronavirus. We have already committed more than £100 million to boost remote learning, and we are funding access to IT devices and software focused on the most disadvantaged. It is worth remembering that schools continue to receive pupil premium funding worth around £2.4 billion annually, and that should help to support disadvantaged children during this period.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but there is anecdotal evidence that school closures bear down more heavily on those from already disadvantaged backgrounds. As the Government are able to reopen schools, can we look at any measure that is necessary to enable children from more challenged backgrounds to catch up, including, if necessary, weekend and summer schools? Even if it is not possible to have schools opened fully during those periods, can we look at what we can do to help?

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that this is something that we are looking very closely at? We are working with partner organisations, exploring targeted support options for disadvantaged people while schools remain closed and in the summer break, and considering how best to support pupils to rapidly catch up when schools reopen. He should know that we have already taken prompt wide-ranging action to help schools and parents support all young people, publishing a list of online education resources for parents, launching a new online academy, and working with the BBC to create a package of TV and online materials to support learning at home.

BAME Covid-19 Review Taskforce

If the Government will convene a cross-party taskforce to (a) oversee the BAME covid-19 review announced on 17 April 2020 and (b) monitor the implementation of actions arising from that review. (902301)

As someone who is affected by this issue of ethnic minorities and the disproportionate impact they suffer from covid, I am glad to see that it is being taken seriously across the House. I am confident that both Parliament and the Health and Social Care Committee will have the opportunity to scrutinise the Government and hold them to account on this in due course, and this is where cross-party work will be most effective.

I and the Liberal Democrats welcome the review that Public Health England is undertaking. I thank the Minister for her response to my question. I hope it means that she will come to the House to make a statement when we finally have the outcome of that review, but there are some things that we can do right now to better understand the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on the BAME community. One of those would be to ask a question on ethnicity on the NHS coronavirus symptom checker, which would surely give us the data that the review needs. Will she commit to speaking to the Department of Health and Social Care on adding that question to the survey?

I thank the hon. Lady for her letter on this issue in April; the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is aware of it, and I am sure she will receive a response from him in due course. It is important to remember that Public Health England is conducting an independent and expert-led review, and we trust Public Health England to collect the information appropriately, as it sees fit.

Covid-19: Impact on Women

Women are affected by the covid-19 lockdown in different ways. Women shoulder greater caring responsibilities and are balancing work with childcare. Some women need immediate access to reproductive and maternity services. They are often financially vulnerable, and financial vulnerability will be exacerbated by the lockdown. Every Government Department is playing its part in considering how the virus and the lockdown are affecting all vulnerable groups of people.

I thank the excellent Minister for that response. Does she agree that opening nurseries and schools for younger children, at least, would be of great benefit, particularly to women?

As a mother with three young children aged six, three and seven months, I assure the House that no one is looking forward to nurseries and primary schools opening more than me. Access to childcare is crucial to supporting mothers, particularly single mothers with young children, to return to work when it is possible, and we are working closely with the sector, but schools and other providers will remain closed, except for children of critical workers and vulnerable children, until the scientific advice indicates that it is the right time to reopen.

Covid-19: BAME and Working-class Communities

What recent assessment she has made of the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on (a) BAME and (b) working-class communities. (902307)

Understanding the impacts on different groups and the factors underpinning them is extremely complex. It is important that we have the right information on which to base our action, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, we have asked Public Health England to review covid-19 outcomes among different groups and to explore the reasons for disparities. It is also why the Government have taken numerous steps to protect those who would be most disadvantaged by this disease.

We do have some other information: according to Office for National Statistics figures, the coronavirus mortality rate in the most deprived areas, such as Elswick in Newcastle, is more than twice that in the least deprived areas—no doubt that is a consequence of health inequalities, which have risen sharply in the past 10 years—and those on lower incomes are more likely to be in frontline occupations. Now we have learned that the infection rate in the north-east is the highest in the country. What is the Minister doing to address the disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME and working-class communities?

The hon. Lady is right. We are increasingly worried about the number of deaths in deprived areas of the country. As she said, the rate of deaths in the most deprived areas was more than two times higher than in other places, but it is important to note that the underlying factors are extremely complex—these things may be related, but we do not have definitive evidence about the relationship between covid-19 and deaths in deprived areas. We are taking many steps to look after people from disadvantaged backgrounds and from working-class communities. We have protected people’s incomes and jobs, supported businesses and looked at universal credit and statutory sick pay. We are doing every single thing we can to make sure that individuals and communities are protected, on the whole, from any adverse impact of the lockdown.

Covid-19: Domestic Abuse

What steps the Government have taken to help protect people living with abusive partners during the covid-19 lockdown. (902291)

What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the covid-19 lockdown on domestic abuse victims. (902292)

What steps the Government have taken to help protect people living with abusive partners during the covid-19 lockdown. (902298)

We know that lockdown can cause particular pressures for people who are living in abusive households, which is why the Home Office has launched an awareness campaign and published specific guidance on setting out the support services available to victims. To ensure that these vital services can continue to support victims during lockdown, we have provided an additional £2 million of funding to bolster specialist helplines and websites. That is in addition to—

All domestic abuse is heartbreaking, but it is particularly so for children. What are the Government doing for children affected by domestic abuse in my constituency of Clwyd South, the rest of Wales and the rest of the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which had its Second Reading last week, requires the domestic abuse commissioner to consider the impact of domestic abuse on children in her work. In addition, the Bill includes a new statutory duty on tier 1 local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within safe accommodation. Last week, I announced £3.1 million in funding for specialist support for children affected by domestic abuse.

I would like to press the Minister on what she is doing specifically in relation to older people who are victims of domestic abuse. Age UK has recently reported that, in 2019, more than 280,000 people aged between 60 and 74 experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales. Given Government advice both in Wales and across the UK on lockdown, it would be helpful to know what specific support she is providing for older people who are victims?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. As I say, the website sets out the services that are available to victims of domestic abuse in these very troubling times, and of course helplines may be of particular use to older people who are not perhaps as familiar with online services as younger generations. In addition, we have announced £76 million in funding to help vulnerable people, with the Chancellor’s £750 million charities fund, and that includes victims of domestic abuse. Of course, the Bill itself will help to—

The Churches Housing Association of Dudley and District is a charity that provides support and housing to vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse. Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent announcement of £76 million to support such charities and the new priority need status allocated to victims who are seeking local housing will provide very real support to an extremely vulnerable group of people at this difficult time?

I agree with my hon. Friend that small and frontline charities play a vital role in supporting vulnerable people. That is why, on Saturday, the Communities Secretary announced a £76 million fund or package of support to ensure that the most vulnerable in society get the support they need during the pandemic.

Disabled women are three to four times more likely to face domestic abuse than non-disabled women, but accessible specialist services are most at risk during this coronavirus crisis; only one in 10 refuge spaces is accessible. As part of the work of the disability unit, will the Minister ensure that specialist funding for disabled domestic abuse victims is ring-fenced?

I thank the hon. Lady, and I welcome her to her position. We are very aware that disabled people face additional pressures when they are victims of domestic abuse, so certainly those considerations form part of the Government’s plans to help the most vulnerable people in society during these very troubling times.

Order. This Friday marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. I know all hon. Members will be keen to mark this occasion, even in these exceptional circumstances. I will be marking the occasion with a wreath-laying ceremony in the House on Friday.

We now come to questions to the Prime Minister. I would like to welcome the Prime Minister back to his rightful place in the Chamber. The whole House and the whole country are delighted at his recovery, and I welcome him back to this elected House.