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Women and Equalities

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: BAME Communities

What steps her Department has taken to help tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. (905149)

What steps the Equality Hub is taking to better understand the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on black and minority ethnic people. (905155)

We are concerned that covid-19 is disproportionately impacting ethnic minority communities, which is why the Government have put in place measures to reduce the spread of the virus, especially for people who may be at higher risk. In addition to a raft of specific targeted interventions, I am working with the Race Disparity Unit and the Department of Health and Social Care to act on the findings of the Public Health England review into disparities in risks and outcomes of covid-19. That work will enable us to take appropriate, evidence-based action to address the highlighted disparities.

In the light of the latest evidence from the TUC on racism and risk in the workplace, what steps will the Minister take to tackle the entrenched discrimination faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic people at work?

The Government are doing all they can to address racial disparities across all sectors. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the commission that the Prime Minister has set up, with the commissioners announced last week, which will look at continued disparities across the board, including in the workplace.

My constituency of Kensington has a substantial BAME population. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that her follow-up work on the PHE report will take into account how comorbidities and occupations affect the outcomes of coronavirus?

My hon. Friend is completely right. It is important to remember that the PHE review findings did not take into account comorbidities or other factors such as occupations. I agree with her that it is imperative for us to understand the key drivers of these disparities, the relationships between the risk factors and what we can do to close the gap in the evidence that the review highlighted.

The recommendations in the Marmot review and the Marmot review 10 years on would be a good place to start when addressing health inequalities impacting BAME communities. Is 10 years enough time to consider the recommendations of the original review, and how long will it be before we see the recommendations of either implemented?

I had a meeting with Professor Marmot just last month, and we discussed the recommendations of his review. If my right hon. Friend has seen the report, she will know that many of the recommendations are at a very high level. For instance, the first recommendation says that we should give every child the best start in life. I am sure that that was something she took forward when she was a Minister. This Government believe that it is important, and it is reflected in all our policies across education and communities.

Transgender People: Discrimination

We are committed to tackling discrimination against transgender people. We have invested £4 million for schools to tackle anti-LGBT bullying, and we have addressed homophobic hate crime in the hate crime action plan.

Successive Conservative Equalities Ministers have repeatedly stalled on publishing the results of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 consultation. Leaked reports of a potential roll-back on trans rights have understandably caused alarm. With hate crimes against trans people up nearly 40% on last year, does the Secretary of State agree that her quibbling on this issue is fanning the flames of populist hate towards an already marginalised group?

As the Prime Minister said, we will respond to the consultation over the summer. Let me be absolutely clear: we will not be rolling back the rights of transgender people. It is important that transgender people are able to live their lives as they wish, without fear, and we will make sure that that is the case.

In July 2018, the Government announced that they were seeking views on how best to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in a consultation that closed in October 2018. Nearly two years later, the Government have still not published their response. Trans rights are human rights, and updating the GRA will help to improve the lives of trans people. Today the House will rise, and the Minister has previously stated that the Government would publish their response. When will she finally publish the Government’s response and their plans for reform?

As I said, we will respond to the consultation over the summer—the Prime Minister committed to that earlier this week—and I assure the hon. Lady that I am very keen to get on with that response.

Hate Crimes: South and East Asian Communities

What steps the Government are taking to tackle the level of reported hate crime against south and east Asian communities during the covid-19 pandemic. (905151)

We have heard these concerns from the police and charities, and we are working with them to ensure that police forces are reassuring affected communities and encouraging reporting of hate crimes during the pandemic. The Government are clear that there is no place for hate crime in modern Britain. These crimes destabilise our communities and there are no excuses for them.

A petition recently created by Viv Yau has nearly 3,000 signatures already. It calls on the UK Government and media outlets to stop using stock imagery of south-east and east Asian people when talking about covid-19. The disproportionate use of images of Chinese, south-east and east Asian people in masks during the pandemic perpetuates the notion that all of us carry the virus, and it plays a significant role in the recent trebling of racist attacks, stereotyping and abuse. Will the Minister commit to working with Government and public bodies on the use of these images, and meet me to discuss the increase in hate crime during the pandemic?

The perpetrators of hate crimes targeting south and east Asian communities, and others, in relation to covid-19 are being punished. We know from the Crown Prosecution Service that it has prosecuted a number of cases involving racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity. But of course the Government are always willing to work with interested parties to ensure that we are stopping hate crime, and I would happy to meet the hon. Lady to do that.

Covid-19: Women Born in the 1950s

What assessment the Government have made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the financial circumstances of women born in the 1950s. [R] (905152)

The Government have introduced significant measures to help mitigate the financial impact of covid-19. We are committed to providing financial support for people when they need it throughout their lives, including when they are near to or reach retirement. The welfare system will continue to support men and women who are unable to work, on a low income, or under state pension age.

Research by think-tank the Women’s Budget Group shows that women are at greater risk from the economic crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. The current crisis is pushing more and more women, including those born in the 1950s, into poverty. What practical steps will the Minister take to relieve the impact on 1950s-born women, who are already disadvantaged by the rise in the state pension age—and may I, Mr Speaker, declare an interest as a 1950s-born woman?

The Government recognise the importance of supporting adults to effectively plan for the future. We do recognise that this is a challenging time for everyone, and we aim to support older workers, including women who may be out of work because of covid-19. Through the summer Budget, the Chancellor announced a number of initiatives that will support all claimants, including older women. The hon. Lady will be aware that there is a live Court of Appeal case as of yesterday, and I cannot comment further on this live litigation.

Covid-19: Protection of Young Workers

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that young workers are protected during the covid-19 outbreak. (905153)

We have supported people to make a claim for universal credit if they have lost their jobs. We are strengthening our youth offer for 18 to 24-year-olds. This includes introducing a tailored 13-week programme, new youth hubs, and DWP specialist youth employability work coaches. Meanwhile, young people can be referred to apprenticeships or work-related training at any stage.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, Glasgow South West constituent Caitlyn Lee, who has worked for the Blythswood Square hotel for five years, will receive only £580 in redundancy pay, which barely covers one month’s rent, because, under statutory redundancy pay law, young workers under the age of 22 are entitled to half a week’s pay whereas workers over 40 get one and a half weeks’ pay. Will the Government address this discrimination, and what will they do to mitigate the mass redundancies of young workers so that they are not disadvantaged any further?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Young people can be at a particular disadvantage, perhaps due to their limited work experience, and they might potentially have a lower skills level. I am concerned to hear about this issue. Our jobcentres are already talking to claimants about the support they can give to young people and signposting them to places that can support them into employment, such as the National Careers Service, in giving advice on how they can look for further work. We have also announced our new kick-start scheme for Great Britain—a £2 billion fund to support young people at risk of long-term unemployment.

My fantastic god-daughter, Toniann, is 17. During lockdown, instead of studying, or even watching boxsets, she became a key worker and helped to keep the economy going. For that, she was paid £4.55 per hour. Does the Minister think that Toniann and other people her age are worth any more than that, and if so, will she stand up for the young people of these islands and urge the Chancellor to make it compulsory for employers using the kick-start scheme to top up this frankly insulting and free—to them—wage?

I am passionate about supporting our young people to get the opportunities they need, and for this, the kick-start programme is vital. My officials are engaging with the devolved authorities about how we can make the eligibility criteria attractive and wide-ranging. We are looking at the detail and will set it out so that everyone can understand how to get involved and get these opportunities at the start of August.

Domestic Abuse

The Domestic Abuse Bill still does not include critical measures to protect migrant women and girls, which is a necessity for compliance with the Istanbul convention. How do the Government intend to protect vulnerable women regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or immigration status if they continue to fail to ratify the convention?

The hon. Lady knows that we already protect the rights of victims of domestic abuse and other survivors through a range of measures, not just those in the Domestic Abuse Bill, but I am delighted that she raises the Bill, which is a groundbreaking piece of legislation. Alongside it, we will this year launch a pilot project to understand and measure the need of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds, because the Government are clear that they must be treated as victims first and foremost.

Socio-economic Inequality: Equality Hub

What plans she has for the Equality Hub to tackle geographical and socio-economic inequality. (905160)

The Prime Minister has set out his vision to level up and spread opportunity across the country, and the Equality Hub will play an important part in realising that vision by rigorously analysing where the real inequality in Britain is today. It will focus in particular on areas such as geography and social background.

Rural poverty is easy to overlook in picturesque areas that other people associate with holidays and a slower pace of life, but it is every bit as hard and destructive for those affected. Can my right hon. Friend advise the House on what action the Government are taking to address rural deprivation?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want everybody across the country to benefit from our levelling-up agenda of investing more in transport infrastructure and dealing with educational inequality. We recognise that deprived rural areas can face additional barriers to opportunity. The Equality Hub will analyse the data and look at where that inequality of opportunity is, so that Departments can take measures to address them.

How might northern constituencies, such as my constituency of Leigh, which according to some measures is in the top 20% most deprived constituencies in the country, benefit from the plans my right hon. Friend mentioned earlier?

We want to make sure that no part of our country feels forgotten about, particularly towns and cities in the north and the midlands, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can assure him that we will do everything we can to look at the roots of that geographical inequality and to make sure his constituents have the best opportunities in life.

Racial Injustices: Race Disparity Unit

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps that the Race Disparity Unit is taking to help tackle racial injustices in society. (905158)

The Government are committed to tackling racial disparities and levelling up the country, which is why the Race Disparity Unit continues to work across Departments and their agencies to identify and address adverse variances in outcomes across education, healthcare, criminal justice and the economy. It is also why the Prime Minister announced the new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, the terms of reference and membership of which were announced last week.

The Baroness McGregor-Smith review in 2017 found that the economy could be boosted by £24 billion if BAME disparities were eradicated. I am sure the Minister would agree that that boost would be really helpful to the economy right now. Will she tell me explicitly what the Government and her Department are doing directly to tackle structural racism in the workplace?

The hon. Lady references Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review, which was an industry-led review with recommendations that were mostly for the private sector to consider. Following that review, we ran a consultation on ethnicity pay reporting and received more than 300 detailed responses, which we are currently analysing. This is one of the things that the commission will look into: it will look at a broad range of issues and some of the findings will help to address the issues that the hon. Lady has just raised.

Low-income Families: Equity of Opportunity

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equity of opportunity for people from low-income families. (905159)

The Government are committed to helping individuals from low-income families to progress at work and to a system to increase their incomes and level up opportunities. The aforementioned baroness, Ruby McGregor-Smith, is leading our DWP in-work progression commission, which is identifying challenges that individuals might face and finding practical solutions to help them to overcome the barriers faced across all communities.

Most likely to drop out of school with no qualifications, most likely to commit suicide and already falling behind in terms of attainment compared with all their peers by the age of five—the plight of white working-class boys still seems to be an unfashionable one, but although these young men have some of the worst life chances of any group anywhere in our country, the Equality Act 2010 does not touch on socioeconomic disparity or poverty. It seems like every other group in society, apart from these boys, has some kind of positive action in place. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that this is the last generation of lost boys from places such as Mansfield who do not have the same opportunity in life as their peers?

The evidence is understood that early language and learning skills have a fundamental impact on a child’s education and future life chances. The Government are bringing in extra support for all disadvantaged children, including white working-class children—I know that my hon. Friend’s sees that as key to no area being left behind. The Department for Education has set up the Hungry Little Minds campaign, targeting low-income parents to support their child’s early language development, which is key to help them to set up for school and boost their life chances.

Topical Questions

I have been clear that the Government are committed to tackling the abhorrent practice of so-called gay-conversion therapy in the UK. As the Prime Minister reiterated earlier this week, this practice has no place in civilised society. Our action will be determined by research looking at how best to define conversion therapy, the scale of the issue, where it is happening and who it is happening to. When that research is complete, I will bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy, making sure that our measures are effective so that no innocent people have to endure such tortuous practices.

As we approach to the summer holiday recess, it looks like we all need it. With that in mind, what steps are the Government taking to tackle the effects of body-image issues on young people? Will the Minister meet me to consider the merits of a law that requires a logo to be displayed if an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions?

We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the issue of body image and its impact on young people. I would be happy to organise a meeting, possibly with those Ministers who are leading on the issue. I also welcome the work that the Women and Equalities Committee is doing on the subject.

Last week, the Government published details of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and announced its chair, who has previously said:

“Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.”

Yet we know that black workers with degrees earn on average 23% less than their white counterparts. The need for action is urgent. Inaction is costing members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities both their livelihoods and their lives. What assurances can the Minister give the House today that her Government are serious about finally ending institutional racism?

It is important to clarify that Dr Sewell who chairs the commission has not denied that structural racism exists. However, he understands that disparities have a variety of causes, such as class and geography, which the commission will be examining in closer detail, and it is the findings of this commission that will address the issues that the hon. Lady rightly says are urgent and need addressing.

May I welcome the race disparity commission, and as someone who has worked alongside many brilliant organisations to root out entrenched disadvantage, can my hon. Friend assure me that the work being done will build the evidence base so that the policy is based on outcomes, not outrage? (905193)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The national conversation on race has been distorted by some seeking to exploit racial tensions without any recognition of the progress that we have made as a multi-ethnic democracy and society. Guided by the evidence, this commission will improve and inform the conversation. It will use data to look at complex and interdependent factors in the round to better understand why disparities exist and what action can be taken to reduce them. The commission will be producing evidence-based recommendations.

The new report of the Federation of Small Businesses, “Unlocking Opportunity”, identifies a number of barriers faced by ethnic minority-led businesses, which contribute more than £25 billion to the UK economy. Will the Minister raise the report’s key recommendations with colleagues at the Treasury—in particular, the setting up of a dedicated scheme to help EMBs access external finance, helping them to flourish and our local economies to thrive? (905191)

Yes, as a Treasury Minister, I will be considering the findings of that report, so I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter.

Gender pay gap reporting has been suspended because of the coronavirus crisis. As the economic downturn is likely to disproportionately affect women, does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that gender pay gap reporting starts again immediately? (905194)

The key priority during the coronavirus crisis is to make sure that we keep women in jobs, and that has been our No. 1 focus as a Government. Of course, it is vital that we address the issues that cause the gender pay gap, and we continue to help more girls study maths and science, which I talked about earlier, and we also continue to address discrimination in the workplace.

Last year, the UK Government consulted on extending—[Inaudible.] By 2019, the UK Government committed to improving redundancy protection. However, no legislation [Inaudible.] Will the Minister provide an update on what progress has been made or is it, as I fear, that there has not been any? (905197)

It is always a pleasure to ask a question of the Minister. There are strong links between alcohol and domestic violence. Covid-19 shone a spotlight on the high levels of domestic violence in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a real risk that the ongoing economic crisis will lead to a surge in high-risk alcohol consumption. In that context, what steps is she able to take to prevent alcohol-related domestic violence? (905204)

We are absolutely clear that alcohol is no excuse for domestic abuse or any other kind of abusive behaviour. We are acutely aware of the need to put victims at the heart of our approach to tackling domestic abuse at this time. We are working closely with domestic abuse charities, the domestic abuse commissioner and the police to understand the needs of victims of this type of abuse and how we can best support them.