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Women and Equalities

Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Disabled People: Covid-19

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on disabled people using existing and new data sources.

Between March and July, disabled people, including people with a health condition or impairment, accounted for almost 60% of all covid deaths, yet a survey of disabled people in Greater Manchester revealed that eight out of 10 were not included in the official Government shielded group, in spite of 57% having significant support needs. With the second wave upon us, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that all clinically vulnerable people are shielded and properly supported?

That is a really important point. Through my work as the Minister for Disabled People and in conjunction with the Disability Unit, for which I am responsible, where stakeholders identify challenges around support for those who were shielding, we raise that with the relevant Minister. Obviously, shielding has come to an end, and that is kept under review. We must ensure that people feel safe, particularly those who are seeking to work. We expect employers to act in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Health and Safety Executive and ACAS, we are publishing helpful guidance to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who are coming out of shielding and returning to normality.

The charity SignHealth has been working to provide British Sign Language translation for covid sufferers in health settings free of charge since the pandemic began. It has submitted a grant application to the Department of Health and Social Care, but so far that has not been awarded. Will my hon. Friend use his best endeavours with colleagues at that Department to get this apparent blockage shifted? As we seek to avoid a second wave of the virus, we also have to ensure that deaf people who are reliant on BSL as their main form of communication are not disadvantaged in their access to information.

I know that, through my right hon. Friend’s work as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, there is no stronger advocate for accessible communications. Stakeholders rightly raise this issue time and again, and through the Disability Unit, we have reminded all Departments of the importance of it. It sounds to me like SignHealth has provided a wonderful service. I know that the DHSC values good services, and I will encourage the relevant Minister to look at this personally and respond as quickly as possible.

Before I ask my question, I would like to pay tribute to the many people out there with disabilities who have been helping others during the pandemic. It is important to keep saying that having a disability does not stop someone contributing. However, for many people, their disability prevents them from having a job, and they are dependent on social security payments. Sometimes they have to jump through hoops to prove that they are disabled enough to “deserve” those payments. Face-to-face work capability assessments are on hold right now, understandably, but the wait is causing untold stress, so will the Minister represent the needs of those people to the Work and Pensions Secretary and join me in calling for paper-based assessments to be made available to everyone?

That is a really good question. First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right about people wanting to contribute. If we ask any disabled person, they want to have the same opportunities that anyone else would take for granted. Rightly, we had to suspend face-to-face assessments. We have used paper-based reviews where possible, and we are bringing telephone assessments into the WCA in the same way that we have done with personal independence payments, which is warmly welcomed by stakeholders. In the long term, as part of the Green Paper in the coming months, we will be exploring better ways to reform the assessment and increase the likelihood of being able to do paper-based reviews wherever possible, predominantly where we are able to get better-quality medical evidence.

STEM Subjects

We continue to fund numerous programmes to increase girls’ and young women’s take-up of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. The number of girls’ STEM A-level entries has increased year on year, despite an overall reduction in cohort size. Since 2010, there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England and a 34% increase in women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK.

We know that the new core maths course is highly regarded for both its accessibility and its pragmatism, and therefore it can play a huge part in increasing participation in maths. Can the Minister tell me how we are engaging with female pupils in particular to encourage them to take up this fantastic course?

Our advanced maths support programme, worth £8 million per year, aims to increase the number of girls studying level 3 maths, which includes core maths. Out of more than 17,000 students participating in the programme’s events last year, 55% of attendees were female. We will be using research such as our behavioural insight studies to inform future work on how to get more girls studying maths after GCSE.

My constituency is a world-renowned centre of aerospace and defence expertise, so how can the Government help to encourage more women to take up these subjects and apprenticeships in particular so that we can equip the country and them with the skills we need for the future?

Along with the significant measures that I have mentioned on increasing the take-up of STEM subjects among girls and women, we are also raising awareness of STEM careers through programmes such as STEM ambassadors, 45% of whom are women. The Department for Education is also taking steps to engage with the sector through apprenticeships. On aerospace specifically, we are supporting industry’s efforts to increase diversity in the sector through the women in aviation and aerospace charter, recognising that a more diverse sector is good for business, customers and workplace culture.

In the UK, female employment in the technology industry stands at 16.7% and grew less than 1% in the last 10 years. This is one of the most promising and booming industries, but it is one that women hardly find themselves in. What discussion has the Minister’s Department had with her Cabinet colleagues to provide incentives for technology businesses to employ women?

The Government take this issue very seriously. The Government Equalities Office carries out various studies to encourage women into this sector. We know that there are disparities in gender representation in some sector subject areas. Women still account for 6% and 8% of starts in construction, planning and the built environment and in engineering and engineering technologies. This is a space in which we are working very hard. We continue to consult business and I know that my Cabinet colleagues are also working on this issue.

Geographic Inequality of Opportunity

We are determined to tackle geographic inequality and level up our country. The Equality Hub will look at the data to identify the real barriers that are holding people back.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that geographical inequality has been a neglected strand of the equality agenda?

I very much agree. Often, the differences in wages or employment are greater between regions of the UK than they are in other types of inequality. For example, there is a 28% gap in weekly pay between the north-east and London.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that people in Cornwall have for far too long faced a disadvantage of opportunity because of our geography. Will she ensure that among all the loud political noise at this time, levelling up geographical inequalities will remain at the heart of this Government’s agenda?

I agree. It is vital that we level up across the country and make sure that someone’s postcode does not dictate their life chances. As I saw when visiting Cornwall’s growing lithium mining industry last week, there are real opportunities to level up and help Cornwall to grow economically and benefit all the people of that great county.

BAME Women: Covid-19

What steps the Government have taken to protect women in BAME communities from the disproportionate effect of covid-19 identified by Public Health England. (906537)

The Government have taken a number of steps to protect all those who may be disproportionately affected by covid-19 to reduce the spread of the virus. This includes targeted testing of occupations and groups at higher risk, including ethnic minority women. We have also translated the latest information into multiple languages in accessible formats to help to ensure that our public health communications reach all communities across the country.

Women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are strongly represented in the workforce in our care system, so will the Minister have a strong focus on keeping care workers safe from covid, with a particular emphasis on the higher risk faced by women from black and minority ethnic communities in those jobs?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are very many BME workers in the social care sector and they must be properly supported. That is why in June, the Department of Health and Social Care published a covid-19 adult social care workforce risk reduction framework to help to manage specific risks to staff, including risk by ethnicity. We are also providing financial support to the Race Equality Foundation to provide additional services to BME communities with dementia during the covid-19 pandemic.

International Trade: Opportunities for Women

What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s international trade policies on increasing business opportunities for women. (906538)

Trade and enterprise are vitally important to women across the world to help them take control of their own lives. That is why we are backing programmes such as SheTrades and Female Founders to support women across the Commonwealth.

Many South Derbyshire residents have concerns about improving the lives of women in developing countries, as they often write to me about this. How will women in developing countries benefit from the trade policies of our Government?

On Sunday, I was pleased to speak at a United Nations General Assembly event on investing in Africa’s female future. Nimco Ali’s Five Foundation was also represented. It is doing great work to tackle female genital mutilation and bring more economic opportunity for women. In the Department for International Trade, we are currently working on trade continuity agreements with countries such as Kenya to help to build trade and help women in those countries to succeed.

Online Abuse

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on tackling online abuse targeted at women. (906540)

There has been a worrying rise in the amount of abuse, harassment and intimidation online, and women are often disproportionately targeted by such abuse. It is completely unacceptable and, in fact, impacts individuals’ rights to participate online. We set out robust measures to deal with this in the online harms White Paper and will be publishing a full Government response to this later in the year.

I am glad that the Minister recognises this point. Almost one in two women report experiencing online abuse since the start of covid-19. However, the Government have delayed the draft of the online harms Bill until, I understand, the end of 2021. Legislation is clearly needed now, so when will the Government bring the Bill forward?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. We are absolutely committed to making the UK the safest place to go online. The online harms White Paper will set out how we are going to make world-leading legislation. We intend to publish that before the end of the year and the legislation to follow at the very beginning of next year.

LGBT Action Plan

We want to make sure that everyone in the UK is free to live their lives and fulfil their potential regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. We will soon be hosting the Government’s first-ever international LGBT conference to advance LGBT rights across the world.

After an organisation in Anfield in my constituency was exposed for offering “cures” for homosexuality involving rituals and starvation, the Government gave me a commitment in this House that they would ban these so-called conversion therapies. That was back in 2018 and there is real concern that the new Government are backtracking on LGBT rights. So when will the Government bring forward a ban on these harmful practices, as promised in their own LGBT action plan? Following the Minister’s response yesterday on changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which fell well short of what is needed to secure the rights of trans people in the UK, will she make a full statement in the Chamber to allow proper debate on it?

Conversion therapy is a completely abhorrent practice. We are working to end it. We are currently conducting research and I will be coming back shortly to talk about the future and how we do end it, but it is important that research is conducted. As I made clear in my written statement yesterday, it is very important that we protect transgender rights but also improve transgender healthcare. That is what we are doing by opening more clinics and also making the process of gender recognition certificates kinder and more straightforward.

Protected Characteristics: Caste

With reference to the written statement of 23 July 2018, HCWS898, when she plans to bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010. (906544)

I would like to make it clear that caste is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. Case law has shown that a claim of caste discrimination may already qualify for protection under the race provisions in the Act. We therefore intend to repeal the uncommenced duty in the Act to make caste an explicit aspect of race discrimination as soon as practicable.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place to answer my regular questions on this particular topic. The fact is that we have had a large-scale consultation of the community. We have had a written ministerial statement making it clear that we are going to remove this protected characteristic from the Equality Act. So I urge her to bring forward, without delay, proposals to remove this unnecessary, ill-thought-out and divisive move in the Equality Act 2010.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We do agree with him. The Government completely oppose any discrimination because of a person’s origins, including any perception of their caste, and we do remain committed to repealing the duty as soon as the opportunity arises.

Statutory Sick Pay

What recent discussions she has with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on an equality impact assessment of the level of statutory sick pay. (906545)

Statutory sick pay is increased annually through uprating, which does not require an equality impact assessment. Individuals requiring further financial support may receive it through the welfare system.

Research by my union, the GMB, has shown that a failure to raise statutory sick pay to Liverpool rates has had serious detrimental effects on particular groups in our society. The status quo is disproportionately harming women workers, older workers, disabled workers, black and minority ethnic workers, workers who hold particular religious beliefs and workers who are married or in a civil partnership. Does the Minister agree that the Government should do an equality impact assessment of these policies and do more to ensure that statutory sick pay is set at a liveable rate?

Equality impact assessments are taken when there are policy changes, not part of the annual uprating exercise. That said, statutory sick pay should not be looked at in isolation because individuals, subject to their own circumstances, could access additional support from their employer, universal credit, or new-style employment and support allowance. We have recently concluded the consultation “Health is everyone’s business” in which many of these issues were raised and we will be publishing our reviews. We understand the points that the hon. Member has raised.

Older People: Covid-19

Our priority has been to continue delivering the state pension and pension credit to new and existing customers. We also supported those in the shielding group who would normally have had to rely on cash through the post office to cover their weekly outgoings.

We know that elderly and disabled people, especially those living alone, are less likely to access online platforms. During this covid pandemic, knowing the rules and understanding the ideas and information behind them is critical, so will this UK Government be re-establishing regular briefings, including British Sign Language translation, as we have in Scotland, so that no one misses out on vital information?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to highlight the importance of accessible communications. It was an issue raised particularly in the early stages that we then shared cross-Government. I am delighted that BSL, for example, was then picked up by the BBC and that is then provided. Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s statement to the House was also simultaneously interpreted by a BSL interpreter. That was a very valid point to raise.

Young Female and Disabled Athletes: Covid-19

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the training and competition opportunities for young (a) female and (b) disabled athletes preparing to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 and beyond. (906561)

Appropriately, a question on sport as I sprint to the Dispatch Box.

We remain committed to supporting our young, female and disabled Olympic and Paralympic athletes through this very difficult period. We continue to work with UK Sport to ensure that athletes are assisted and supported in their preparation for the Tokyo games and beyond to Paris 2024.

Does the Minister agree that this kind of investment will establish role models, which will encourage people to get active in their own communities?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role as the spokesperson on digital, culture, media and sport. He asks his question on a very appropriate day as today is National Fitness Day. He is absolutely right: if you can see it, you can be it. We want to inspire the next generation of young people to get physically fit and active not only for their own physical health, but for the mental health and well-being that it brings.

Topical Questions

I want transgender people to be free to live and prosper in modern Britain. We will maintain the Gender Recognition Act, protect single-sex spaces, and work to make the recognition process kinder and more straightforward. In line with the priorities of transgender people, we are improving health services and reducing waiting times, and we have also launched the Cass review to ensure that under-18s are getting the right support.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as well as to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Prime Minister, for giving backing to my campaign to end the abhorrent practice of so-called LGBT conversion therapy. Will my right hon. Friend kindly update the House on when she hopes to bring forward this vital legislation?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership on this issue and her work to support women when they are giving birth. Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice and we are currently conducting research, which I hope will be finished by the end of this month, on how to end it in the United Kingdom. Shortly after that, we will set out steps to end it.

Yesterday, after nearly three years, the Government finally published their response on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004; disgracefully, they have let the trans community down. The written statement said that the Government are opening at least three new gender clinics this year. Will the Minister clarify whether the mention of those three clinics was a reference to the pilot services committed to by the previous Government in 2018, or represent a new investment by this Government to improve trans healthcare?

In line with the priorities of the transgender community, we are seeking to reduce waiting lists in the health service by 1,600 people, as well as to improve access to services, with three new gender-identity clinics. We also want to make sure that proper training is available to general practitioners so that we get better services on the frontline.

I did not get an answer to my first question, but I will try this one. The average waiting time for NHS gender services is 18 months, yet the NHS constitution says that the first appointment should be within 18 weeks. The Government have rightly committed to reducing waiting lists by 1,600 people by 2022, but that will still leave an estimated 10,000 trans people on the list. Will the Minister set out what steps the Government are going to take to bring the waiting lists down, to ensure that trans people can access healthcare within the time set out in the legal framework?

The hon. Lady is right that it is a priority to bring down waiting lists and make sure that transgender people get the healthcare that they deserve. That is why the Government Equalities Office has put in extra funding to support Dr Michael Brady as our LGBT health adviser. We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the NHS to make sure that those services are in place.

Does the Minister agree that if girls aged between 16 and 18 are persuaded to be married instead of continuing their education, they are likely to be disadvantaged for the rest of their life and less economically active than those who complete an education until at least 18? (906613)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: education is important and it is obviously wrong when girls get married at an early age against their will. My hon. Friend has done a lot of work to raise these issues, and the Government are listening carefully to the debate on the legal age of marriage and continue to keep it under review. Tackling forced marriage is one of our key priorities and I am proud that we made forced marriage an offence in 2014.

The recent report by the all-party group on sexual and reproductive health in the UK found that women are increasingly having difficulty accessing contraception because of cuts to budgets and complex commissioning arrangements. The past president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Professor Dame Lesley Regan, has pointed out that Viagra was made available to men over the counter and without a prescription within a year of being licensed, but the safe progestogen-only pill has been licensed for more than 60 years and we still do not trust women to get it over the counter at the chemist. What is the Minister going to do about this blatant discrimination against women? (906605)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will take the issue up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Being gay in the farming community is incredibly hard, not least because of isolation. The Gay Farmer Helpline plays a vital support role, but has highlighted a high suicide rate. What is the Minister doing to support gay farmers, and will she meet me and representatives of the helpline to see what else we can do? [R] (906619)

Farming is a vital industry in Britain, and I want all farmers to feel supported. I applaud the work of groups such as Agrespect in supporting LGBT farmers to thrive. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss what more we can do.