Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

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.