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Women and Equalities

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: Disabled People

What steps her Department has taken to help tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people with a disability. (910489)

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

I thank the Minister for her answer. We know that in the last lockdown over half of families with disabled children found that their essential care support was stopped, with a third of parents reporting no specific support for their child’s remote learning needs. That left many families in crisis with no respite. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that both care and access to learning are made a priority for disabled children during this lockdown?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for families with children and young people with special educational needs. Supporting them is a priority for this Government and their wellbeing remains central to our response. We have our £37.3 million family fund to help more than 75,000 low-income families raising children. The hon. Lady will note that the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), is partaking in this session, and I am sure that she will be keen to update her further.

National Autism Strategy

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the development of the new national autism strategy. (910490)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and congratulate her on all the work that she does for autistic people. We are working across Government and particularly with the Department for Education to develop a new impactful all-age autism strategy. This will set out specific actions to address the significant inequalities that autistic people and their families face.

We aim to publish the strategy in the spring.

I was not really able to hear the Minister’s answer, but there was a report from the Care Quality Commission in October last year that was quite damning in its account of the experiences of people with autism and learning disabilities in mental health facilities. What work is the Minister doing—particularly in terms of the review of the Mental Health Act 2010 that we will hear about later today—to ensure that people with autism are treated sensitively when they end up encountering mental health services and having to spend time as an in-patient?

I know that the report to which the hon. Lady refers, which was commissioned by the Secretary State for Health and Social Care, did indeed have some very serious findings. We absolutely will take action based on that report. We are also working on the Transforming Care agenda to ensure that people with learning disabilities and autism are not inappropriately in in-patient settings. There is, of course, also the reform of the Mental Health Act, which will mean that it should no longer be used for the detention of people with learning disabilities and autism beyond the 28-day period for assessment.

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. (910491)

My first report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on ethnic minority groups in October concluded that there is no evidence suggesting that ethnicity itself is a risk factor. Rather, the evidence suggests that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors, as well as pre-existing health conditions, largely explained the disparities. The report set out the range of measures that the Government had put in place as well as recommendations to target those risk factors, which we are carrying out across Government. We are also working with stakeholders, including the British Medical Association and the Community Advisory Group, specifically in relation to adult social care.

The disparities impact report did not say that race was not a factor. What it actually said was that data were not being collected. Has the Minister ensured that ethnicity data, including test-taking, positive tests, vaccinations and deaths at a national and regional level, are being collected to enable the robust monitoring of the impacts of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities? If she has, we will see whether her deep-rooted reluctance to acknowledge the role that structural racism plays is actually justified.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady seems to have completely misunderstood the report. I encourage her to re-read it. There is no evidence to suggest that structural or institutional racism is the cause of the higher infection rate for ethnic minority groups. In fact, data published by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre shows that from September to December, the direct impacts of covid-19 have improved for ethnic minorities overall when it comes to the percentages of critically ill patients and deaths in England by ethnicity when compared with the first wave. We need to understand that this is a health crisis, and it is really sad that Opposition Members continue to politicise the issue and to look for racism, when medical experts have supported our report and shown what is driving these disparities.

Levelling-up Agenda

We are determined that everyone in Britain should be treated fairly and have a fair chance in life, whether they come from Redcar or Reading. That is why we have a new approach in the Equality Hub that is focused on the scourge of geographic inequality.

The Minister knows that Redcar and Cleveland rely a lot on our chemicals, manufacturing and engineering industry, and, like me, many young lads in Teesside go on to study apprenticeships in our industry. However, there remains a lot of work to do to address the gender imbalance that faces our industry. What more can the Government do to encourage young people of all backgrounds, but especially young women, to access engineering and help to level up places such as Redcar and Cleveland?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We know that 35% of the gender wage gap can be explained by the different occupations done by men and women. I am delighted that he is doing a lot to support Teesside’s chemical industry and to attract more young people, including women, into it. I am pleased to say that since 2010 there has been a 31% increase in girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

Covid-19 Vaccination

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to promote the take-up of covid-19 vaccinations among all communities. (910493)

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to promote the take-up of covid-19 vaccinations among all communities. (910498)

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone who is clinically prioritised to receive a vaccine has access to one as soon as possible. As part of the Government’s vaccine confidence campaign, briefing sessions are being held with community and faith leaders, with an expert panel of speakers taking questions and countering misinformation. That is part of an integrated campaign across multiple channels to improve public knowledge.

A recent survey carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health revealed that only 57% of respondents from BAME backgrounds were likely to accept the vaccine, compared with 79% of white respondents. I know, based on emails that I have received from constituents across Keighley, that there is an element of nervousness about vaccines among the BAME community, so will my hon. Friend outline how she will increase efforts to support vaccine take-up among BAME communities and reassure all that the vaccines are completely safe?

The NHS will provide information to promote the take-up of the covid-19 vaccines among all communities, and will support anyone who has questions about the vaccination process. We are doing a lot of work across Government on this issue. We have had meetings with multiple stakeholders, including last week with the National Pharmacy Association, with which I and the Under-Secretaries of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) discussed options to tackle vaccine hesitancy among minority communities.

Disinformation about the safety of vaccines has caused great alarm for many people. This scaremongering is hugely damaging when mass inoculation is the route out of the current crisis and will enable us to return to normal life. What steps is the Department taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that accurate information on the safety of vaccines is conveyed to communities for whom English is not their first language?

The vaccine confidence campaign is a cross-Government one, and it includes work to translate key messages and guidance in over 10 different ethnic languages across radio stations and publications. I reiterate my hon. Friend’s point that vaccine disinformation is harmful and dangerous. It is everyone’s responsibility to access information from authoritative sources and not to share misleading information. The Government are also working to help social media platforms identify and take action against incorrect claims about the virus and vaccinations.

Thankfully, we expect uptake of the vaccine among older people to be high, but uptake in that group of people is low when it comes to pension credit. The NHS will have face-to-face contact with almost every older person on these islands this year. I see an ideal opportunity to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to get the message across that billions of pounds of pension credit is going unclaimed by older people. Will the Minister agree to meet to look at how we can do something about that?

The hon. Member’s question is not specifically related to vaccines, so I will defer to DWP Ministers to respond and meet her to discuss the issue.

It is crucial that the vaccine confidence campaign is accessible to those with learning difficulties, those with hearing impairment, those with visual impairment, and those without English as their first language. Will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing across all Departments to make sure that the campaign is as accessible as possible to those who are among the least advantaged in our society?

My right hon. Friend will know that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is giving advice on how to prioritise those most in need. The vaccine confidence campaign is specifically to do with vaccine hesitancy, which is not one of the issues that we have found among the groups she mentioned. We want to make sure that they are prioritised according to their need and vulnerability. However, I take the point that she has made and I am assured that that work is taking place across Government.

Equality of Opportunity: Children

What steps she is taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for children throughout the UK. (910494)

Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards, investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than we did in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children throughout the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme; continuing to provide eligible children with free school lunches during term time; and securing over 1 million laptops and tablets, of which over half a million have already been delivered.

Coastal communities such as Lowestoft face particular challenges in improving social mobility. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend outlined the co-ordinating action being taken to ensure that all Government Departments work together to ensure that children in seaside towns have every opportunity to realise their full potential.

Clearly, what we need to do for coastal communities—as we are doing, working with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—is to make sure that childcare is available for every child. That is why we are, in particular, keeping early years open, and why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working to make sure that we protect jobs and create new job opportunities for those in coastal communities.

Economic Recovery: Employment for Women

What steps the Government have taken to ensure the adequacy of employment opportunities for women during the economic recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (910495)

The Government have taken significant steps to support employment opportunities for women, starting with protecting jobs. The coronavirus job retention scheme has supported 4.5 million jobs done by women, the self-employed income support scheme has issued grants to 1.4 million women, and we are providing an extra £4.6 billion to support sectors required to close during the lockdown, which predominantly employ women.

Female employment is highest in the services sector and has been hit particularly hard by redundancies in hospitality, retail and leisure. The new deal announced by the Prime Minister in June focused on house building, road building and infrastructure—all vital sectors, but heavily geared towards male employment. Can my hon. Friend confirm whether there are equivalent plans to stimulate female employment in the months ahead, and will he meet me to discuss this?

I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to encourage such employment. We are committed to having a fair recovery for all. During the crisis we have rolled out unprecedented levels of support to protect jobs for both women and men. Yes, of course I would be happy to meet her to discuss what more we can do to stimulate employment, including female employment, in the months ahead.

Research by the Trades Union Congress shows that about 90% of mothers have taken on more childcare responsibilities since the pandemic began, with 43% having to balance childcare with working from home. This is a particular pressure for single-parent households, the majority of which, research shows, are headed by women. With women at greater risk of redundancy and disproportionately employed in sectors hardest hit by shutdowns, will the Minister commit to creating a legal, enforceable and immediate right for parents to request paid, flexible furlough?

Certainly furlough is available for women and, indeed, men who have childcare responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the employer whether to give that, but if women feel unduly disadvantaged, they can approach ACAS.

Equalities Policy

What steps she is taking to ensure that her policies take a broad approach to equality beyond a focus on protected characteristics. (910497)

What steps she is taking to ensure that her policies take a broad approach to equality beyond a focus on protected characteristics. (910503)

I want to make sure that the equality agenda moves beyond just protected characteristics. Instead, we will make sure that we are focused on every individual in Britain having a fair chance in life and fair access to public services.

I really welcome the Government’s agenda on women and equalities, and I commend my right hon. Friend for her outstanding leadership, but could I please also ask her to reassure me that we will never bow to those who suggest that white people should feel guilty for being white or to those who peddle the notion of white privilege? We are in this together, so will she please undertake today to write to other Government Departments to reinforce that?

Britain is one of the best places in the world to live, no matter what a person’s skin colour, sexuality, religion or anything else is. We need to be positively empowering people in Britain to succeed so that everyone has access to opportunity, and not using positive discrimination. That is the approach we are taking right across Government.

A very happy Lohri for the Dogra community, who are celebrating today. I agree completely with my right hon. Friend on the need to ensure that we move beyond the Equality Act 2010, but first we need to reform it. Will she bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010, so that we can ensure that Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Muslim communities are not disadvantaged in our society?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Caste is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, and case law has already shown that a claim of caste discrimination could qualify for protection under the race provisions in the Act.

Equalities Policy: Evidence Base

We can and must have an equality agenda that is driven by evidence, and that is why we have launched an equality data project, which will look at the life paths of individuals across this country and deliver hard data about the barriers that people face.

Over the Christmas break, I was disappointed to read comments in The Guardian by Halima Begum of the Runnymede Trust, who ridiculously claimed:

“I think the government’s long-term plan is to work up white nationalism for the next elections”.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should that insulting thinking have no place in the setting of Government policy, but it should have no place in mainstream discourse?

I agree with my hon. Friend—these comments are appalling. They reflect an attitude on the left of politics that says, “If you’re not from an oppressed group, you’re not entitled to an opinion”, and I think that is fundamentally wrong. I believe that equality is for everyone, and I am not going to let this debate be dominated by a few campaign groups.

Topical Questions

As we recover from covid, we need to make sure that everyone in Britain has a chance to succeed and is being treated fairly in the workplace. We are broadening the focus of the Equality Hub from protected characteristics to equality for all and, in particular, tackling the scourge of geographical inequality. I will shortly be saying more about our new fight for fairness, delivering a better deal for everyone and standing up for fundamental human rights and freedoms across the world.

I very much welcome the fact that the equality agenda will be looking beyond simply protected characteristics. One key problem has been white pupils eligible for free school meals and how they have underperformed academically compared with other low income groups. Does the Minister feel that the equality agenda we have been working with, which has been almost exclusively focused on protected characteristics, may be an explainer in why that is the case?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The attainment score at GCSE for white British children who receive free school meals is lower than the equivalent for black and Asian children. At the Equality Hub, we are conducting a life path analysis to understand where the real issues are, and we are working closely with the Department for Education to take action on this issue.

The impacts of 10 years of austerity are stark: 14 million people are now in poverty, figures out today show that 45% of disabled people in work at the start of last year reported no earnings by summer, and figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that there are more women likely to live in poverty. In 2010, the Tory-led Government scrapped the Equality Act 2010’s socioeconomic duty. Addressing class and other inequalities is not an either/or. Given the Minister’s new-found passion for addressing class and poverty, will she now enact the socioeconomic duty?

We have made significant progress since 2010 in addressing disparities—for example, closing the attainment gap in education—but we recognise that, during the covid crisis, more needs to be done to address inequality and help to level up our country. The way we are going to do that is to focus on equality for everyone across our country, making sure that everyone has a fair chance—including addressing the issue of geographical inequality, which is severe in this nation.

The evidence shows that women face a significantly greater risk of violence and harassment than men in many aspects of their lives. To show their continued commitment to this issue, when will the Government ratify the International Labour Organisation’s new global convention outlawing violence and harassment at work, and will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting UN Women’s “Safe Spaces Now” campaign for better safety online and in public spaces? (910530)

We are finalising consultations across Government on the ratification of the ILO violence and harassment convention. Once complete, we will inform Parliament of our intentions regarding ratification. The Government share the “Safe Spaces Now” campaign’s goals to see street harassment stamped out and are committed to tackling all forms of abuse against women and girls.

In a speech last month, the Minister for Women and Equalities stated that she wanted to focus on “facts”, not “fashion”—she has made reference to that today—and to concentrate on “data and research”. The overwhelming body of evidence of structural racism is clear. It is a fact that black Caribbean children are more likely to be excluded from school. It is a fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth. This is not fashion: they are facts. Does this evidence not point towards the need for action, rather than the continual denial and dismissal of the realities of systemic racism?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has already presented the clear evidence on the covid crisis. My point is that, rather than looking at equality through the prism of groups, we should be focusing on making sure that every individual in this country—regardless of their race, their background, their sexuality or their sex—has the opportunity to succeed. That is what the data project we are working on will look at.

I have been contacted by a WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—woman who is a carer for her severely disabled ex-partner. She stopped work in 2019 due to his escalating care needs and was awarded carer’s allowance. When she finally received her state pension after decades of paying into the system, she was shocked to find that she was no longer eligible for carer’s allowance. How can it be right that when they hit pension age, carers—72% of whom are women—are no longer eligible for support? (910534)