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Women and Equalities

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Equal Access to Opportunity

We know that the average hourly wages are more than 30% higher in London than in Northern Ireland and regions such as the east midlands and the north-east. That is why we are working to level up Britain.

We often see evidence that white working-class children have some of the worst educational outcomes—for example, in GCSE results and the numbers going on to higher education. Does my right hon. Friend agree that working-class children in communities such as Bishop Auckland who face poor outcomes deserve the full backing of the Government Equalities Office?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The attainment score at GCSE for white British children who receive free school meals is lower than the equivalent for black and Asian children who receive free school meals. That is why I have asked the Equality Hub to expand beyond protected characteristics and strengthen its focus on geography and social background to identify barriers to opportunity and success.

Female Entrepreneurs: Government Support

All the Government’s business support schemes are open to eligible businesses from all regions and backgrounds, including female entrepreneurs. The start-up loans programme has provided more than 30,000 loans worth over £239 million to female entrepreneurs as of June 2020. Additionally, we are working with the private sector to deliver the eight initiatives of the Rose review. Great progress has been made over the past year, with the joint NatWest and Be the Business female entrepreneurs mentoring programme to be launched soon.

I thank the Minister for the detailed measures he set out. More women work in sectors and industries that are hardest hit by the covid-19 crisis. Can he outline, with a particular view to childcare, the help that we can offer women with successful businesses and careers to get them through the difficult months ahead?

I thank my hon. Friend for her concern, especially about childcare. We have already introduced 30 hours of free childcare for eligible working parents of three and four-year-olds. We have ensured that wraparound childcare remains open, to support parents to continue to work under all three covid levels. As set out in our manifesto, the Department for Education will be investing £1 billion from 2021 to help create more high-quality wraparound and holiday childcare places, including before and after school and during the school holidays.

Covid-19: Support for Older People

This Government are determined to support older people during the pandemic, and my Department is working to support people of all ages to remain in and return to work. We have published guidance on working safely during the covid-19 pandemic and continue to work with national employer organisations on improving support for the over-50s. Our £30 billion plan for jobs provides back-to-work support for all ages, including doubling the number of work coaches, increasing sector-based work academy places and a new Department for Work and Pensions job finding support service.

In my Glenrothes and Central Fife constituency, over 2,000 pensioner households are losing out on £5.4 million in pension credit payments every year because they do not know that they are entitled to them. Fife Council launched an uptake campaign in the Glenrothes area, but it was curtailed because of the covid pandemic; I have to declare an interest, as I am married to the chair of the council’s Glenrothes area committee. The Scottish Government have published an uptake strategy for the benefits under their control. Will the Minister agree to urge her Cabinet colleagues to enshrine in law a duty for the UK Government to do the same for pension credits and other benefits that are controlled at Westminster?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that on 6 May, we launched the “Apply for Pension Credit” service, which is an online claim service that supplements the existing telephone and—[Inaudible.]

I think somebody else might need to answer this question! It is estimated that there is more than £2 billion out there every year that is the legal right of older people on those islands. Pension credit does not make anybody wealthy, but it can make the difference between the loneliness and misery that poverty brings and the joy of simply being able to engage in life again. Will the Minister responsible for fighting for those older people agree to take this on as an equalities issue and put resources into ensuring that people have the knowledge and support—including support in using the online service she mentioned—to access what is, after all, a legal entitlement?

Apologies. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

In supporting our older people, pension credit is an absolute priority for this Government, as I mentioned earlier. In fact, about 1 million pensioners—close to that number—who are pension credit customers will receive a winter windfall of £140 off their fuel bills, thanks to the Government working with energy firms to cut costs. This Government are determined to do all we can to support pensioners, and the DWP cross-match these pension credit customers with the data held by pension suppliers. I am sure that we will continue to support pensioners as widely as we can through this pandemic and ongoing.[Official Report, 2 November 2020, Vol. 683, c. 2MC.]

Covid-19: Women Leaving the Workforce

What steps she is taking to support women at risk of leaving the workforce due to the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak. (907852)

What steps she is taking to support women at risk of leaving the workforce due to the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak. (907862)

The Government have taken significant steps to protect jobs for women with the coronavirus job retention scheme supporting 4.5 million jobs done by women. We continue to support women in the labour market through our job support and bonus schemes. We have also committed to extending redundancy protections for new mothers returning to work and to make flexible working the default.

Working mums have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies finding that they are more likely to quit or lose their jobs and typically perform a larger share of childcare and household duties than men. One of my constituents spent lockdown home schooling her two children as well as caring for her elderly shielding mother. Excluded from most of the financial support packages, she now faces winding up the company she set up. I have heard what the Minister had to say, but it does not go far enough. What additional urgent measures will he take to ensure that progress in female employment is not set back by decades?

There are 1.8 million more women in work than in 2010, and it is important that we capture that. As I have said, on childcare responsibilities, which are so important, we have introduced 30 hours of free childcare, we have ensured that wraparound childcare remains available in each of the tiers and we will continue to invest to help create more high-quality, wraparound and holiday childcare places so that mothers are not disadvantaged.

The Women’s Budget Group last week highlighted that working-class women specifically face the biggest cuts to working hours since the beginning of the pandemic, with 43% reporting having had their hours cut to zero since April. Could the Minister set out what specific support he is putting in place to stop these women falling into poverty, because clearly it cannot be right that working-class women are so adversely affected by the pandemic?

This is important, and we know that certain sectors are the worst affected. It is important that we actually do everything we can with “Hands, face, space” to make sure that our economy can start to open again and create opportunities, but we have also put in support with universal credit, the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employed income support scheme and the wider winter economy to help everybody, but especially the disadvantaged women that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Women make up a significant proportion of those employed in the fitness, leisure and wellbeing industry. Can my hon. Friend tell me what work he is doing with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to recognise that physical, mental and financial wellbeing go hand in hand? The sector is now having to manage variable lockdowns, and there will be a knock-on impact if businesses cannot recover financially and resume their role of contributing more than £2 billion annually to the nation’s economy.

We know that physical activity is absolutely crucial to the wellbeing of our nation as well as to our economy. We have been working closely with the national sports council, Sport England, to continue promoting health and fitness during lockdown. This includes the Join the Movement campaign that it has launched, which provides tips, advice and guidance to tell people how they can keep or get active in and around the home. As I have said, it is so important that we keep as many gyms open as possible, where possible, but ultimately, this is about getting the economy up and running again. Lives are first in our priorities, but the economy and livelihoods must be absolutely up there.

The Work Foundation has reported that 58% of workers in the retail sector are women and these are some of our lowest-paid workers, but due to most of them working on part-time or temporary contracts, hundreds of thousands of women working in retail will not even be eligible for redundancy pay. What plans does the Minister have in mind to mitigate the likelihood of disproportionate numbers of women being made redundant with no financial support available to them?

As I say, it is so important that we get the economy up and running again, and we can do that only by people joining us and working with us on hands, face, space, to ensure that we reduce the transmission rate and save as many jobs as possible. We have launched a job support scheme, and that, plus universal credit, means that the lowest paid employees can have around 80% of their salary covered between those two schemes.

Education: Equality of Opportunity

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on ensuring equality of opportunity in the education system. (907853)

As our Prime Minister often says, talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. This Government have made it our mission to rectify that, and equality of opportunity lies at the heart of the work by the Department for Education, including opportunity areas, access to higher education work and reforms to further education such as the flagship T-levels. We recognise that education has an unparalleled ability to create and unlock opportunities across the nation.

In North West Durham, we see lower educational outcomes, especially among white working class pupils, who are getting disproportionately poor results. What measures are the Government taking to ensure better attainment at the ages of 16 and 18 and in later life, and not only to deliver greater opportunities for individuals, but to level up all our communities?

It is vital that we raise school standards and outcomes across the education sector and that we raise and level up our country. That is why we established Opportunity North East, and tomorrow I will chair a board meeting to discuss that work. My hon. Friend is a tremendous advocate for his constituency, and I and other Education Ministers will continue to work with him to ensure that the young people of North West Durham get the chances and choices they deserve.

Equal Rights for LGBT People: International Promotion

What steps she is taking to maintain the UK’s international promotion of equal rights for LGBT+ people. (907854)

The UK continues to be recognised as one of the most progressive countries globally for LGBT rights. The Government recently announced £3.2 million of new funding to help Commonwealth Governments and civil society to repeal outdated discriminatory laws against LGBT people. We work closely with the Council of Europe and the UN, in additional to co-chairing the Equal Rights Coalition, and we remain committed to delivering an ambitious international LGBT conference.

My hon. Friend will understand that the decision not to amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will inevitably see the United Kingdom fall significantly in the tables of those countries that are seen to be committed to the delivery of equality for LGBT+ people. Will she and her Department do something to address that, by committing to the delivery of an 18-week waiting time for gender identity clinics and development services for children, as an outcome of the review by Dr Hilary Cass?

We have noted my hon. Friend’s concerns about the Government’s decision, and we assure him that the UK has a strong record on LGBT rights. The wait for gender identity clinics has been very long, and the Government are looking at that issue. I will not make a specific commitment at the Dispatch Box, but I recognise the concern that has been raised. We will continue to do what we can to speed things up.

Covid-19: Risk and Outcome Disparities

What recent discussions she has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) stakeholders on tackling the disparities in the risk and outcomes of covid-19. (907855)

In June, the Prime Minister asked me to lead cross-Government work on this issue, with a particular focus on ethnicity. I will update the House on the findings of my work in full tomorrow. The work involved extensive engagement by the Race Disparity Unit and me, with colleagues and external stakeholders, including academics and experts from University College London, the London School of Economics, Oxford University, medical experts from the British Medical Association and many ministerial colleagues. We will continue to redouble our efforts, and it is crucial that we make evidence-based decisions on this important work.

One unfortunate impact of covid-19 has been the impact on attainment in our communities, particularly white working class communities where educational attainment gaps have struggled during this crisis. I represent Princes End, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the west midlands. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, as part of that work across government, she will look particularly at ensuring that opportunity gaps as a result of covid-19 are not widened?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of children of all backgrounds being in school and their educational attainment and wellbeing more broadly. The Government have been clear that limiting attendance at schools should be a last resort. We are providing laptops for the most disadvantaged pupils and 4G routers for families who do not already have mobile or broadband, for example. More broadly, on disparities in attainment, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is looking at outcomes for the whole population. That means ethnic minorities and white British people as well. The commission will set out a new positive agenda for change and look at the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Science, Technology and Emerging Industries: Girls and Young Women

What steps she is taking to encourage girls and young women to lead in science, technology and emerging industries. (907856)

We are making good progress in getting more girls and women into science, technology, engineering and maths, with a 31% increase in girls studying STEM subjects since 2010 and 1 million women now working in core STEM occupations.

Professor Sarah Gilbert in vaccine research; Kate Bingham in vaccine operations; Baroness Harding in testing; Dr Jenny Harries in medicine—all fantastic examples of highly qualified professionals leading the UK’s response to this once-in-a-century pandemic, and they all happen to be women in STEM. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are setting a wonderful example for future generations of girls and boys in South Ribble, Lancashire and beyond?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. They are a huge asset to our country, but having more women in STEM is also helping to close the wage gap and helping our economy to recover post covid. Around 35% of the wage gap can be overcome if we get more women working in high-paid occupations and sectors such as engineering and technology.

International Trade: Business Opportunities for Women

As much as £250 billion could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men. I am determined that trade should play its part in opening up greater opportunities for women, both in the UK and across the world.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can she tell me what the UK will do to build on our close ties with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to expand trading opportunities, especially for women, particularly given Vietnam’s membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership?

First, we have appointed a splendid trade envoy for those three countries, who is going to do a brilliant job promoting opportunities for women and everyone through free trade agreements. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: CPTPP contains important provisions to open up trade for women, and of course Vietnam is a key part of that agreement.

Abortion Clinics: Protection from Intimidation or Protest

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on protecting women attending abortion clinics from intimidation or protest. (907858)

The Government are clear that it is unacceptable that women seeking or staff providing healthcare advice should feel intimidated or harassed. The Home Office has been keeping this important matter under review. We are now considering again whether more should be done to protect those accessing or providing abortion services, and we have reached out to service providers and the police to understand their experiences of these protests, but the impact on women is of course at the centre of our considerations.

That is a very encouraging reply. Right now, up and down the country, women are being intimidated and police are having their time taken up by 40 Days for Life, an anti-choice group that is running a 40-day protest outside clinics. France, Australia and Canada have legislation on this. I am encouraged by what the Minister says. Will she please follow suit and take heed of the Demonstrations (Abortion Clinics) Bill, which I introduced in June? There is overwhelming support in the House for us to do the same here.

I have the pleasure of meeting the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) later today to discuss this topic. The hon. Lady will know the meticulous approach that we have applied to this important issue. There is a balance to be struck with the right to express and to have freedom of speech, but clearly the impact on women and staff working in these centres is really important. I am pleased that public spaces protection orders are working in her area and two others—Manchester, I understand, has just received an order, or is implementing an order, as well. We very much have to balance those matters in mind, but I look forward to continuing this discussion in only a few hours’ time.

Topical Questions

Alongside sex, race and sexual orientation, geography and social economic status can affect opportunity. I want to widen the focus of our understanding of equality to include outcomes for white working-class children, so we can ensure we are levelling up our country. I have therefore asked the Equality Hub to consider the importance of geography and background alongside factors such as sex, ethnicity and disability. That will make sure we truly level up Britain.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should be focused on its responsibility to enforce equality and human rights law?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted that we have been able to put forward Baroness Kishwer Falkner as our preferred candidate to chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I know she is committed to making sure the commission’s focus is on enforcing our important equality laws.

The Equality Act 2010 sets out that the Government must seek to advance equality of opportunity in relation to its functions, yet throughout the pandemic Ministers have repeatedly failed to do so. It is vital that the Government take proactive steps to prevent the disproportionate impact of covid on disabled, black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Failure to do so is neglect. It is discriminatory, and it is unlawful. What evidence does the Minister have that her Government are fulfilling their public sector equality duty as set out in the Equality Act?

It is completely false to say that the Government have not acted and to deliberately ignore the significant measures we have put in place to reduce the spread of the virus in all communities across the United Kingdom, which we have repeatedly stated in this House. As I mentioned earlier, I will be making a full oral statement tomorrow, but it is known that we have taken many key measures to ensure that NHS frontline staff—in particular, those from ethnic minority backgrounds—are best protected and to ensure we fully understand the links between the virus and ethnicity.

Two and a half thousand deaths could have been avoided during the first wave of the pandemic had people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities been adequately protected. Last month, I wrote to the Minister asking what steps her Government had taken to address the disproportionate impact of covid, but I have yet to receive a reply and we are now in a second wave. The Minister says she will be giving a statement tomorrow, but I ask her as it is oral questions today. She still has not given an update on progress in implementing the recommendations of the Public Health England report. It has been over four months, so will she give us an update on the seven recommendations and when they will be fully implemented?

The shadow Minister has written many letters to me over the past four months, and I have replied to them. It is simply untrue to say that she has not received a reply. She knows the work we are doing is progressing the recommendations throughout government. The oral statement tomorrow will give ample time for me to fully address and explain all the work the Government have been doing and what the evidence has shown us. I encourage her to attend the oral statement tomorrow, because there is very much that she could learn on this topic.

Will the Minister tell us what assessment has been made, and what steps are being taken, of the impact the increasing numbers of covid-19 cases and the pandemic are having on the LGBTQ+ community? (907893)

We have been looking at the disproportionate impact the virus has had on very many groups. That is not a group where we have seen a disproportionate impact in terms of the effects of the virus. What has impacted that community is their inability, like the rest of the population, to access healthcare services. We hope that will be addressed through how we are managing local lockdowns and being able to keep pressure off the NHS.

Will my hon. Friend detail what steps her Department is taking to ensure that girls can access period products during the pandemic, especially when only 41% of schools are taking advantage of the Government’s offer of free period products? In Environmenstrual Week, does she agree that, wherever possible, those products should be free of plastic? (907891)

The Government are taking a range of actions to ensure that everyone can access affordable period products. We are providing fully funded access to free period products in schools and colleges across England. The scheme remained in operation during partial school closures, and we expect uptake to have significantly increased as schools have fully opened. The scheme provides a wide range of products, including environmentally friendly tampons and pads, alongside reusable products such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.