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Women and Equalities

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: Economic Effect

What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak on (a) women, (b) disabled people and (c) Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. (909384)

What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak on (a) women, (b) disabled people and (c) Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. (909387)

The pandemic has affected all communities in our country. This Government have done their utmost to protect lives and livelihoods. We have targeted economic support at those who need it most. For example, rolling out unprecedented levels of economic support worth over £200 billion has provided a much needed lifeline for those working in shut-down sectors such as retail and hospitality, the workforces in which are disproportionately young, female and from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. We have taken action to ensure that disabled people have access to disability benefits, financial support and employment support, such as the Work and Health programme, and we have extended the self-employment income support scheme, in which some ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented.

Analysis of the labour force survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the shut-down sectors worst affected by the pandemic have a higher than average proportion of workers who are women, who are disabled and who are from BAME backgrounds. In Salford, where this economic picture is stark, the number of people claiming universal credit has more than doubled since January. Will the Minister, first, commit to demanding that the Chancellor strengthens support to those struggling, as advised by the Social Security Advisory Committee, such as protecting the £20 universal credit uplift and extending it to people on legacy benefits? Secondly, will she request bespoke financial support packages for the worst hit sectors?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Chancellor will be announcing his spending review this afternoon, and I think she will find that many of the questions she is asking will be answered at that point. With respect to the sectors that have been shut down, as I said in my first answer, we recognise that those people who are on low incomes have been disproportionately affected, and those groups are the ones who have most benefited from the interventions that the Treasury has put in place.

Nearly one in seven people in Coventry are now on universal credit. That is a 97% increase since March. Low earnings, higher rates of poverty and greater need mean that women, BAME communities and disabled people rely more on UC and the social security system. Fixing it, from scrapping the two-child limit and benefit cap to an uplift in payments, is a question of gender, racial and disability justice. What has the Minister done to push for these measures in today’s spending review, including keeping the £20 UC uplift from April 2021 and extending it to jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance?

I am afraid that, as I said in my earlier answer, questions about the spending review need to be asked to during the spending review, which will take place later this afternoon.

We know that we went into the pandemic with female employment at a record level and with the disability employment gap shrinking. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the work that she is undertaking with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that women, disabled people and BAME people are not disadvantaged when we come out of the pandemic?

As we discussed at the Women and Equalities Committee a few weeks ago, this is something that the Government Equalities Office is very much alive to. I am working with equalities Ministers across various Departments to see how the interventions that we are making are not going to impact on those groups who are most vulnerable, and I will continue to update her on that work.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

There are over 600,000 people in work who are clinically extremely vulnerable. Current shielding guidance states that if they cannot work from home, they should not go to their usual place of work, but this does not entitle them to be furloughed. This means that many disabled people have had to ask their employer to put them on furlough in order to receive financial support. Where employers have refused to do so, an estimated 22% of disabled employees have had to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. Does the Minister think that this is fair?

As the hon. Lady will know, the pandemic has affected many different groups in very bad ways, and we have done everything we can to support them. Specifically on disabled people, we have done quite a lot in looking at the benefits that they have and providing support in many other ways, including employment support. These are the ways that we are protecting those people who are being disproportionately impacted. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is also in the House today, is going to be answering more questions on our disabled strategy, and perhaps he will be able to provide more information specifically from a Department for Work and Pensions perspective.

Workplace Discrimination: Pregnant Women and New Mothers

With reference to the Government-commissioned research on pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination and disadvantage, published in 2015, what progress the Government have made in tackling unlawful discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace. (909385)

Since the publication of research on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the Government have worked with ACAS and published updated guidance to ensure that women and employers understand their rights and obligations, consulted on measures to extend redundancy protections and committed to introduce these in an employment Bill.

We are heading to Basingstoke—but maybe not yet, as we do not have Maria Miller, so I call Kerry McCarthy.

Victims of Domestic Abuse: Free Travel

What recent assessment the Government have made of the effectiveness of rail to refuge schemes in providing free travel to victims of domestic abuse. (909386)

I thank the Minister for her response. She will know that domestic abuse services have, sadly, seen a real surge in demand during the lockdown. Rail to refuge schemes, including the GWR scheme that serves my constituency, have helped more than 800 people to flee domestic abuse through the use of a free rail ticket. Can the Minister commit to funding these schemes in the future, because they are really important to people who need to get away?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for her support for this scheme. She will know that over 63% of victims of domestic abuse accessing the support have stated that they would not have been able to access a journey at all if the scheme had not been in place. I am pleased that this vital scheme is extended until next March, and we keep all these schemes under review all the time.

Workplace Discrimination: Pregnant Women and New Mothers

In Germany, women who are pregnant or on maternity leave cannot be made redundant, to avoid any hidden discrimination. With one in four women who are pregnant during the pandemic experiencing discrimination here at home, is it not time for the UK to look carefully at adopting a similar approach to that taken in Germany?

I thank my right hon. Friend for pushing her private Member’s Bill and for her concern in this area. I was pleased to meet her. Germany has a far more prescriptive labour market. We support the intention behind her Bill but, having undertaken a full consultation in 2019, we have decided on a different approach, working with the grain of our current regime and extending the existing protection afforded to a new mother on maternity leave into pregnancy and for a six-month return to work period. We will introduce these changes as soon as parliamentary time allows. I am more than happy to continue to work with my right hon. Friend in that regard.

Social Mobility

This Government are focused on levelling up. We are transforming our skills system so that everybody has a chance to train and retrain, and we are using important new data analysis from the Equality Hub to ensure that we are addressing where real inequality lies in the UK.

I welcome all the work my right hon. Friend is doing to promote social mobility. However, what assessment has she made of the needs of groups such as white working class children whose challenges have not had enough attention to date?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. White British children who receive free school meals perform worse at GCSE than equivalent black and Asian children. We need to ensure that children from all backgrounds are succeeding in modern Britain, and that is going to be a major focus for the Equality Department, working with the Department for Education.

Social mobility should not mean having to leave your community to go in search of opportunity: we need to spread opportunities across our towns and villages, including those in my constituency. The digital revolution should provide an opportunity to make this more achievable, but sadly, many adults, even in my constituency, do not have the digital work skills needed to take advantage of this. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the digital skills boot camps being established across the country, alongside the fantastic work of civil society organisations such as the Good Things Foundation in Sheffield, are vital to opening up the jobs of the future to people in all communities?

We know that digital skills are vital in the modern economy. We also know that this is a huge opportunity for us to level up our country. We know that take-up is particularly low among girls in areas such as computing, and that is why the digital skills boot camps are vital. They are being rolled out across the country in spring 2021 to ensure that everybody has the skills they need to succeed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lifetime skills guarantee is a landmark achievement in opening up opportunity for all, especially in left behind communities, such as Radcliffe, in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; too many people have been let down in the past by poor education. We want to make that right, through the lifetime skills guarantee, making sure that there is an entitlement to level 3 qualifications and access to four years of loan funding, for people to use over their life- time, so that everybody, right across the United Kingdom, has the skills they need to succeed.

My right hon. Friend will know that education is incredibly important when it comes to opportunity and social mobility. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that those who learn differently due to dyslexia are able to receive that crucial early diagnosis and support so that they can access those opportunities equally?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point; everybody needs access to a world-class education that sets them up for life. I am pleased to say that in early years 25% of children with special educational needs achieved a good level of development in 2019, which compares with a figure of only 14% in 2013, but we continue to do more to make sure that children with special educational needs have access to a good education, right across the country.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that mothers are supported in the return to work during this recovery?

It is very important that working mothers and working fathers have access to the childcare they need so that they are able to get into work during the coronavirus crisis. That is why it is so important that we keep our schools and nurseries open, and that we continue to give the support of the 30 hours a week of childcare for three and four-year-olds.

Covid-19: Disabled People and Legacy Benefits

What steps she is taking to ensure the adequacy of support for disabled people on legacy benefits during the covid-19 outbreak. (909389)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We are ensuring that disabled people continue to have access to disability benefits and other financial support during it.

I wonder whether the Minister is aware that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that nearly half of people in poverty in the UK are either themselves disabled or live in a household with someone who is. As he says, covid has exacerbated that hardship, and the inequalities disabled people face will only be exacerbated by the fact that those who are on not on universal credit will not have benefited from the uplift of £20 that was applied to UC. So has he, or anyone else in the Government, carried out an equalities impact assessment on the decision not to extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits?

Those on legacy benefits will have benefited from the 1.7% uplift as part of the annual upratings. Depending on individual circumstances, they may have also benefited from the changes to the local housing allowance; the increases in discretionary housing support; the various employment support schemes; and the additional discretionary support administered via local authorities. This year alone we anticipate expenditure on disability benefits to increase by nearly 5%.

The reason my Scottish National party colleagues and I, and others, have repeatedly called for this £20 uplift is that covid-19 costs people with disabilities significantly more money than it does most others, yet they have been completely ignored. Last week, a petition from the Disability Benefits Consortium calling for the £20 uplift, which had 119,000 signatures, was handed in to the Chancellor. As the Minister who represents the interests of people with disabilities, did he ask the Chancellor to do this in today’s spending review? If not, what did he ask for?

As I have already set out, we anticipate spending on disability benefits to increase by 4.6%; we are talking about close to £20 billion and that is targeted support for those who most need it.

Covid-19: Disabled People

What steps the Government are taking to help protect disabled people from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (909391)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We are ensuring that disabled people continue to have access to employment support, disability benefits, financial support, food, medicines, accessible communications and updated guidance.

Data published by Scope this week shows that the disability employment gap stands at a shocking 29.2% nationwide. Many are fearful that the gap will increase with the economic fallout of covid-19. We clearly need a long-term, multi-pronged approach to address this deeply entrenched issue, so will the Minister commit to examining Scope’s five policy asks and work with his Department for Work and Pensions colleagues to put them into practice?

I put on the record a tribute to the proactive and constructive work of Scope and many other organisations to support our efforts, which have resulted in record disability employment—up 1.3 million since 2010. Yes, these are unprecedented times, but we have made sure that all the schemes in our £30 billion plan for jobs have disability provision embedded. We will continue with our ambition to have 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027—nothing has changed.

Institutional Racism

We are committed to a fairer society. In July, the Government set up the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which is reviewing inequality in the UK, focusing on areas that include education, employment, health and the criminal justice system. The commission is looking at outcomes for the whole population and is due to report at the end of the year.

This year, one of the issues about which I received the most correspondence was the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd. A key thing that came across was that my constituents want to ensure that what we teach in schools is properly representative of the role that black Britons and other people of colour have played in our history. Today, the “Black Curriculum” report, led by Dr Jason Arday of Durham University, has concluded that the national curriculum in England

“systematically omits the contribution of Black British history”.

Will the Minister speak to the Secretary of State for Education, urge him to work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, such as Kirsty Williams in Wales, and ensure that we have a truly reflective curriculum?

I have not seen the report that the hon. Lady refers to, but I will look at it with interest, decide, from an equalities perspective, whether I agree with the conclusions that have been made, and then speak to the Secretary of State for Education about it.

Covid-19: Childcare

What steps she is taking to support women returning to work to access childcare during the covid-19 outbreak. (909394)

The Government are supporting childcare provision during the pandemic by funding the free childcare entitlement for two, three and four-year-olds with £3.6 billion in 2020-21. We are giving grants and loans to businesses and ensuring that childcare providers can access the coronavirus job retention scheme, where necessary.

The Prime Minister has urged everybody who can do so to work at home until April, and obviously many people have been doing that for the past eight months, but childcare responsibilities are still falling largely on women. As a result, recent data has shown that 67% of women with children—compared with just 16% of fathers—are likely to quit their job because they cannot balance childcare with work. The Minister talked about the action that the Government are taking, as did the Minister for Women and Equalities earlier, but it is clearly not working, so what more will the Government do to reset this imbalance?

The Government have introduced 30 hours of free childcare for eligible working parents of three and four-year-olds. We have ensured that the childcare sector has been able to stay open to support parents to continue to work. We are investing £1 billion from 2021 to help to create more high-quality, wraparound and holiday childcare places, both before and after school, and we will continue to push the fact that childcare needs to be distributed equally between both parents.

Topical Questions

As we recover from covid, I am determined that we ensure that everyone across Britain is treated equally and has equal opportunity. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is critical to delivering that. I am delighted that, alongside announcing Baroness Kishwer Falkner as my preferred chair, I have appointed four new commissioners with a diverse range of opinions and backgrounds—a leading tech entrepreneur, a leading thinker, a pioneering health expert and a business leader—who are all committed to equality.

While the global focus has been on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, other important issues also need our attention, particularly the rising rates of female genital mutilation. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to tackle FGM internationally?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This is an issue of concern for the Government. According to the UN Population Fund, the covid-19 pandemic could disrupt efforts towards ending FGM. We cannot let that happen. That is why we are continuing with UK Aid supported programmes on FGM, which have already helped 10,000 communities.

Today is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse last year. Since the pandemic began, domestic abuse has intensified and women have reported finding it harder to escape. Yet 10 years of sustained cuts to services have left just 4,000 beds available for women who are fleeing domestic violence. It is obvious that the funding provided so far is too little too late, so can the Minister say when the Government will adequately fund services and give women the confidence they need, so that they will be protected by this Government?

We are concerned about domestic abuse during the pandemic. That is why we have provided an extra £76 million to support vulnerable people, including domestic abuse victims, and we have recently made available a further £11 million to support domestic abuse services as they continue to manage the impacts of the pandemic.

The gender pay gap is still sitting at around 15%. At the current rate of progress, more than 8 million women working today will retire before they see equal pay. This sends a message to women that this Government are happy to turn back the clock on women’s equal pay. I am going to ask the Minister a straightforward question, yes or no: will she restart gender pay gap reporting in April next year?

Our focus is on making sure that we are helping women during the coronavirus crisis, through the furlough scheme, through making sure that there is flexible working and childcare support available and through making sure that we get more women into jobs. My view is that we need to address the causes of the gender pay gap, including getting more girls and women studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, so that they are able to earn higher amounts in their careers.

The impact of the pandemic on unemployment is being felt in every constituency. It is more important than ever to ensure that those living with disabilities are treated equally in the recruitment process, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that protections that support equality throughout the recruitment process stay prominent as we focus now on recovery? (909425)

I thank my hon. Friend who is a real champion for disability employment opportunities in his constituency. As part of our £30 billion plan for jobs, disability provision is embedded throughout our schemes, including in kick-start, the job entry targeted support scheme, sector-based academies, apprenticeships, the health and work programme, intensive personalised employment support and access to work. We remind employers that, under the Equality Act 2010, they must focus on ability, not health or disability.

I will be hosting a national group of experts on decolonising the British curriculum in January 2021. Will the Secretary of State attend that event to listen to the expert testimonies from the academics regarding this important issue? (909428)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said in a recent debate on this topic, we do not accept the premise that the curriculum in this country is colonised. While I am always very interested in hearing the viewpoints about how we can improve the curriculum, there are certain premises that we simply will not accept.

What recent steps has the Secretary of State taken with Cabinet colleagues to improve access to sexual and reproductive health services for young people during the covid-19 outbreak? (909426)

Sexual and reproductive health services have remained open during the pandemic. Services are maintaining access during this time through scaling up of online services. Guidance from the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare sets out that local pathways for urgent referral for vulnerable groups, including via young people’s outreach, should be maintained.

The EHRC report on the hostile environment released today shows just how bad the situation has been over the years. It is clear that the EHRC does not have the capacity to launch an inquiry into every piece of legislation that has had its equality compliance questioned. Will the Minister explain what steps are being taken to ensure that future legislation is not labelled as complying with the public sector duty when it so clearly does not? (909429)

It is very important that we conduct equality impact assessments, but it is also important that they are kept confidential within the Government to ensure that there is not a chilling effect and we are able to have an honest debate about achieving equality across all Departments.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that more than half a million new babies were born during the first lockdown. What assessment has she made for the many women who have had to struggle with juggling childcare responsibilities with going back to work during this very difficult year? (909427)

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her important work leading the early years healthy development review. I completely agree that we need to ensure that people are protected during the lockdown and that they are helped, as we recover from covid, to find better childcare options and better flexible working options. I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to achieve that.