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Women and Equalities

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: Self-Employed Women

We have introduced an unprecedented package of support for businesses to get through this incredibly challenging period. More than £10 billion of grants has been paid and over 830,000 businesses of all sizes have been able to access more than £34 billion of finance through our loan scheme. As of 7 June, the self-employed income support scheme has paid out on 2.6 million applications worth £7.5 billion. Of these, 701,000 claims were from women, totalling £1.609 billion.

Can the Minister provide any extra help for new mothers whose periods of maternity leave mean either that they are not entitled to help under the self-employment support scheme or that their entitlement is significantly reduced?

The Government clearly understand the challenges for the self-employed, in particular, arising from the arrival of a new baby or adoption. We are working on additional guidance for individuals who took a break from work to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child, and for whom no income tax self-assessment tax return was submitted.

Covid-19: Public Health England Review

What steps she has taken in response to the findings on the risks of covid-19 for BAME people in Public Health England’s report entitled “COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes”, published in June 2020. (903360)

What steps she is taking in response to the findings in Public Health England’s report entitled “COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes”, published in June 2020. (903363)

We are taking the findings of PHE’s report, “COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes”, which was published on 2 June, very seriously. The next steps are to fill the gaps in the report, which necessarily had some limitations. The Race Disparity Unit and the Department for Health and Social Care are working with me to do this. This vital work will help us to take appropriate, evidence-based action to address the disparities highlighted.

Given the delays between publishing the report and publishing the recommendations, and the likely delay now in implementing those recommendations, how do the Government propose to rebuild trust and confidence in their actions with black and minority ethnic groups and individuals?

I believe the hon. Lady is conflating two different reports. There was no delay in publishing the first report, which did not have recommendations. The second report was published by PHE only yesterday, and many of the recommendations are already in train. I refer her to the written ministerial statement that I laid yesterday, which should hopefully provide additional clarity on that.

I begin by paying tribute to the very many BAME staff I have worked alongside in the NHS, including in recent months. They are an absolutely vital part of the NHS team. That is why it is really important that we get this review right. It is crucial that we get the necessary expert advice to help us to do that. What steps is the Minister taking to get that expertise to support the work she is undertaking?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are determined to proceed with this in an evidence-led way, and we will be engaging with experts in the field. On Friday, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and I held a virtual roundtable on these issues with a number of public health consultants and leading academics in this field, including Professor Michael Marmot. I am very grateful for their input. We intend to continue in this spirit by engaging with other experts such as the Office for National Statistics.

Professor Fenton’s report, finally published yesterday, highlights yet more evidence that socioeconomic inequalities, racism and discrimination are root causes of BAME communities being disproportionately harmed by covid-19, and that these injustices were already known and have already cost lives. The Government’s denial and delay further compound despair at their lack of care and concern. The seven practical recommendations that the Government should have acted on much sooner include risk-assessing our black and minority ethnic workers on the frontline. Black lives matter is more than just a slogan. So what immediate and decisive action will the Minister take now to develop and deliver culturally competent occupational risk assessment tools?

I refer again to the ministerial statement that was laid yesterday, which covers this. The Government did not delay publishing any report, and the recommendations that were published, on which most of the actions are already in train, can be seen on the gov.uk website.

Covid-19: Women in the Workplace

What steps she is taking to ensure that women in the workplace are not disproportionately affected during the covid-19 outbreak. (903361)

The Government are committed to helping all employees during this challenging time. The coronavirus job retention scheme is an unprecedented scheme to protect employment, and it has supported more than 9 million jobs. As always, equalities legislation requires that employers must not discriminate based on gender, or pregnancy and maternity, in the workplace.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that women are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs since the start of the crisis and 15% more likely to have been furloughed. We know that social distancing has severely impacted hospitality, leisure and retail, where women are disproportionately employed in customer-facing roles. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that women do not emerge as the accidental casualties of the crisis?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and, in particular, for highlighting the situation with regard to the hospitality and leisure sector. I speak to many of the people in that sector on a daily basis. We are actively monitoring the impact of covid-19 on the labour market, but it is too early to draw any firm conclusions. Equality legislation requires that employers must not discriminate based on gender, and this law continues to apply.

As with any other economic downturn, it is women who are at risk of being worst hit by the economic consequences of coronavirus. As childcare responsibilities overwhelmingly fall on women, the closure of schools and childcare facilities could mean that many women are forced to leave work or to reduce their hours as the furlough scheme is wound up. The U-turn yesterday on free school meals is welcome and will help many families, but what will the Minister do to ensure that women are able to return to work in a flexible way in order to balance childcare commitments and not lose out financially, particularly as schools are not yet fully open?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we manage to supply childcare. That is why women should be able to go to their local authority. They may not get their first choice of childcare provisions, but their local authority will be able to guide them. None the less, it remains the case that there should be flexible working: if people can work from home, they should be able to work from home, and employers need to be mindful of that.

Covid-19: Female Entrepreneurship

What assessment she has made of the potential effect on the economy of increased levels of female entrepreneurship after the covid-19 outbreak. (903362)

The Government’s Rose review into female entrepreneurship found that £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men. We must take the opportunity, as we recover from the covid crisis, to help make this happen.

I recently highlighted to my right hon. Friend that very point about the £250 billion, and, as part of that solution, I have been working to try to deliver a set of women’s business hubs across the UK, which I know the British Library is also working on. What other steps can she take to ensure that part of the covid recovery benefits women across the UK and encourages more female entrepreneurs?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work for the all-party group on women and enterprise. He is absolutely right: we need to make sure that, as part of our levelling-up agenda, this is a cross-UK phenomenon. We have growth hubs across the country. We are also working on mentoring schemes and on trying to ensure that investment is available right through the UK to help those start-up businesses get going.

My right hon. Friend has shown real passion and commitment to female entrepreneurship, which will be absolutely crucial as we seek to recover from covid. Unfortunately, those same women will not be able to start up their own businesses or to be assisted to go back into the wider workforce unless they can have reliable, accessible, available childcare. What specific discussions is she having across Government to ensure that that childcare is available? We recognise that there are challenges around social distancing and the hours that schools can operate, but will she please enlighten us on what she is doing?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the vital importance of childcare. We also need to ensure that the flexible working practices that have developed during this covid crisis are available to both women and men following the crisis. We are making sure that educational settings are open as soon as possible. More than 90% of nursery schools and colleges were open on 4 June, and I am working very closely with the Secretary of State for Education and his Ministers to ensure that we reform childcare and make more places available.

Black Lives Matter Movement

What recent assessment she has made of the implications of the Black Lives Matter movement for the priorities of the Government Equalities Office. (903364)

No one should face discrimination. Individual Departments and their Ministers must take account of the equality impact of their policies, and I can assure the House that my ministerial colleagues take this very seriously. Across the whole of Government, we have already taken significant steps to tackle the sorts of concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, including continuing to act on the Lammy report, working to improve trust between citizens and police forces and ensuring that record numbers of ethnic minority people continue to go to university.

Over the past two weeks, we have heard members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, repeat that black lives matter, yet their policies fail to reflect that. The Unity Project’s report presented the Home Office with evidence that the “no recourse to public funds” policy discriminates against black British children and leaves them growing up in poverty. What steps can the Minister take to protect black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, and black people in particular, against further discrimination to ensure that the UK Government’s words are matched by their actions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The issue of no recourse to public funds has been raised multiple times, and the Government are doing many things to tackle situations in which people who may not necessarily have been able to access public funds are able to do so. For example, the Government are ensuring that anyone who needs NHS treatment is not being charged, and programmes such as the coronavirus job retention scheme are available to people who have no recourse to public funds.

I wonder whether the Minister agrees that some racism is down to unconscious bias, and helping people to recognise and address their own bias could make a real difference. If she agrees, will she welcome the creation of the all-party parliamentary group on unconscious bias? It will conduct several investigations, starting with racial bias, so will she commit to working alongside us and to consider any recommendations with an open mind?

Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy is a vile, abhorrent practice that we want to stop. We have commissioned research to look at the scope of the practice in the UK, and we will publish our plans shortly after we receive that research.

I thank the Minister for her words on this abhorrent practice. Will she consider taking specific steps to protect under-18s from conversion therapy?

I am particularly concerned about under-18s being coerced into so-called conversion therapies, and that is one of the specific points that we will address when we launch our plans shortly.

Covid-19: Economic Opportunity

What steps the Government are taking to ensure equality of economic opportunity after the covid-19 outbreak. (903366)

The Government take the public sector equality duty into account when developing, implementing and reviewing all policies, including the response to the covid-19 pandemic. We are gathering and developing evidence for the equalities impact of covid-19, which will be used to support and influence planning for the economic recovery.

Flexibility of working is important for both men and women, so will my hon. Friend tell me whether the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has plans to make flexibility the default, rather than an option?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising flexible working. The Government have been clear about the benefits of flexible working for employers and their employees. The manifesto we stood on talked about an employment Bill, which we will bring forward when possible, to make flexible working the default. We look forward to introducing those measures, subject to consultation.

Disabled People: Benefit System

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effectiveness of the benefit system for supporting disabled people. (903367)

We remain committed to ensuring that the benefit system is effective and positive in supporting disabled people. That includes several measures, such as suspending face-to-face assessments, extending personal independence payment awards where necessary, and increasing the universal credit standard allowance and local housing allowance rates.

We know that people with existing health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill with or succumb to covid-19 than the population as a whole. For example, more than one in four of all people who have died of covid in hospital in England also had diabetes. What assessment have the Government undertaken of the proportion of people with health conditions in receipt of social security support who have also died of covid?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. The Department for Work and Pensions looks to identify and learn lessons swiftly. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon is engaging extensively and holding conversations with charities and stakeholders on exactly these kinds of issues so that we can understand the impact on the most vulnerable.

Global LGBT Equality

We want LGBT people across the world to be free to live their lives without discrimination or persecution. I am working closely on that with the Foreign Secretary and, as we launch trade negotiations with Australia today, I am delighted to have worked with high commissioner George Brandis, who played a leading role in Australia’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. We will continue to work with close allies to lead the world on this issue.

In the month of Pride, being celebrated around the world, and looking forward to the rescheduled global LGBT conference being hosted here under the chairmanship of the right hon. Nick Herbert, does the Minister agree that it is essential for us to deliver on our 2018 LGBT action plan in order to preserve our place as a co-chair of the global Equal Rights Coalition?

I take this opportunity to wish everybody the very best for a happy Pride. I am sure that we will be doing a lot of things virtually rather than on the streets, but it is very important that we celebrate, and I am delighted that we are hosting the LGBT conference on the theme of “Safe to be me”. In response to my hon. Friend’s question, we will be updating our plans for LGBT rights for 2020 and we want to continue to lead the world on this issue.

Covid-19: BAME Key Workers

What steps she is taking to help ensure that BAME key workers are protected during the covid-19 outbreak. (903369)

All NHS organisations continue to make appropriate arrangements to support their ethnic minority staff, and NHS human resources directors are considering a range of mitigating actions, including redeploying staff to alternative roles, stringent testing procedures, equity of personal protective equipment provision and training, and improved occupational health support. For those in other key roles, Government have issued safer workplace guidance, which emphasises the need for employers to carry out risk assessments, to engage with their representatives and to take account of equality impacts.

In my constituency of Burton and Uttoxeter, we have sadly lost a number of dedicated frontline workers from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. My constituents are understandably worried, and I have raised concerns previously in the House about how we can protect those in at-risk groups who work on the frontline. Public Health England’s recent stakeholder engagement work contains a number of recommendations. Can the Minister give an outline of Government’s progress on them?

Many stakeholder recommendations are already in progress, as my hon. Friend states, and as part of existing Government work, we are collecting better data on ethnicity—that was one of the recommendations. We agree that that is imperative and we are working to overcome technical barriers. NHS employers have published some excellent frameworks and occupational risk assessment tools, which can be used now; the race disparity unit is working on communication with covid teams across Departments; and I have said that further research to fill the gaps in PHE’s review is one of my immediate priorities.

Covid-19: Disabled People

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people through the covid-19 outbreak and beyond. We continue to monitor its impact on disabled people and those with a health condition, using existing and new data sources to improve our understanding.

Many people with disabilities and parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities have contacted me, feeling very fearful that they will face abuse for not wearing a face covering on public transport. Labour supports the use of face coverings, but the Government’s messaging needs to be very clear. Will they ensure that their public advertising campaign includes and explains the exemptions and look at supporting local charities that are trying to address that?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this point. We need to recognise that some people with disabilities face particular difficulty when it comes to social distancing and are impacted on by the reaction of others due to their inability to socially distance—I understand, particularly, the situation for young children. I reassure her that the Department for Transport has revised transport guidance for travellers and operators and considers the details needed for disabled travellers. I hope that that reassures her.

Covid-19: Gender Pay Gap Reporting

What assessment she has made of the potential effect on the gender pay gap of the suspension of gender pay gap reporting during the covid-19 outbreak. (903377)

To ease the burdens on businesses due to coronavirus, we suspended enforcement of the gender pay gap reporting in March. Despite that, more than 5,500 companies have reported to date, and employers continue to do so.

Gender pay gap reporting was removed in March, yet even then, just two weeks before the deadline, only around half the businesses expected to report had done so. This cannot become a lost year for narrowing the gender pay gap. Eliminating pay inequality, especially for those women in low-paid, insecure work, must be at the heart of the recovery. Will the Minister tell me exactly when gender pay gap reporting will be restored and how the information will be used as part of the coronavirus recovery?

We are in a serious economic situation due to covid-19, and my priority, as the Minister for Women and Equalities, is to make sure that women stay in employment where possible and are able to get jobs where possible. That is where I am putting all my efforts.

Topical Questions

As we recover from the covid-19 pandemic, the Government will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed, which is why the Prime Minister announced that we are setting up a new commission on race and ethnic disparities, and why we will be hosting an international LGBT conference once international travel allows. We will work to support businesses to maintain some of the positive changes we have seen, such as greater flexible working, which benefits women, men and their families.

In the light of that answer, I refer the Minister to the latest report by the Social Mobility Commission, which highlights that in the past seven years there was little or no action by successive Governments on a third of its recommendations, including on ensuring that child poverty is not exacerbated by universal credit, which received the lowest, red rating, based on evidence showing that 72% of children living in poverty live in households where at least one adult is in work and that black, Asian and minority ethnic children are more likely to be in poverty. Given the total lack of leadership by the Minister’s UK Government, as highlighted by the report, will she take ownership so that her Government can finally step up and ensure that that report, and the millions of children in poverty, are not ignored?

The most vital tool in social mobility is education, which is why we are absolutely determined to get children back to school and to support children who are not in school through virtual lessons. I encourage the Scottish Government to follow the leadership that we are showing.

Nobody’s chances in life should be limited by the colour of their skin or their ethnic background. What progress is the Prime Minister’s race disparity commission, and when might we start to see results? (903401)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and touches on why the Government have set up the commission: to understand why disparities exist, what works and what does not, and to present recommendations for action across Government and other public bodies. It should report by the end of the year.

The Government ran a consultation on ethnicity pay reporting that closed back in January 2019. Nearly 18 months on, the Government have failed to publish a response to the consultation and have said twice in replies to written questions on the issue that something will be published “in due course”. That is not good enough. Mandatory pay gap reporting will be one small but significant step towards addressing pay equality, so when will the Government finally publish their response to the consultation and take urgent action to introduce mandatory pay gap reporting?

Pay gaps are caused by a range of factors. The hon. Lady is right that we ran a consultation on this issue in late 2018; I will write to her to provide her with an update.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the good news that the so-called “rough sex gone wrong” defence will now be outlawed? (903402)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a disgrace that that was being used as a defence in criminal cases of murder. I pay tribute to Members from all parties who have run an effective campaign and congratulate the Ministry of Justice on taking action on the issue.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister is in the wings to hear this question. We know that the Disclosure and Barring Service sometimes bars people from work for decades and is, frankly, unfair and discriminatory; we know that the Windrush scandal is still ongoing, and there is dither and delay in the Home Office; and we know that in health and care services there has been a disproportionate impact on those from BME communities, especially among women in nursing and care roles. We do not need another commission to decide this; what we need is some action. What is the Minister going to do about it? (903400)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the Disclosure and Barring Service. It is something we are looking at, but it is important that we look at this across the board, and that is why we have set up the commission.

I have a short question. Being out of school really impacts on children’s opportunities. Can the Minister commit to getting every single child back to school in September? (903403)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital we get our children back into school. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is working very hard on this, and we are doing everything we can to make it happen.