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Women and Equalities

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Policy Evidence

We must have an equality agenda that is driven by the evidence. That is why we have launched an equality data programme, looking at the life paths of individuals across the country and ensuring that we have hard data about the barriers that people face, whether in education, employment or accessing capital for business.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Like her, I welcome the importance of data in all this. I also welcome the fact that last year the Government Equalities Office commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team to produce a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias training. As she will know, the report highlighted that there was no evidence that this training changed behaviour in the long term, nor did it improve workplace equality. It also stated that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences. So I am glad that the Government are phasing it out in the civil service and that this House is doing the same, but can she assure me and the House that any suggested replacement for this training must be supported by the evidence of what works?

My hon. Friend is right that unconscious bias training has been shown not to work and in fact can be counterproductive. The best way to improve equality is to make the system fairer by increasing choice and openness. For example, making systems around pay and promotion more transparent and open has been shown by the evidence to improve equality for everybody.

I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s commitment to robust evidence. Does she agree that there is hard data that, when there is enforcement of reporting, more companies publish their gender pay gap? With no enforcement in place, so far this year, just one third of last year’s total has reported. Is that robust enough evidence for her that without enforcement there is a danger that equal pay will slide backwards?

I am pleased to say that we saw the gender pay gap fall to a record low last year, but we need to continue making progress on that issue, including making sure that we are tackling the cause of the gender pay gap, and 35% of the cause is the fact that women and men are in different occupations. So we need to make it easier for women to get into high-paid jobs in areas such as technology, science, and engineering.

Covid-19: Support for Women

What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of Government support for women during the covid-19 outbreak. (912135)

We have rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support to those who need it most, regardless of gender. That includes sectors that employ large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality. The Government are continually reviewing the effectiveness of their support and Departments carefully consider the impact of their decisions on those sharing protected characteristics. That is in line with both their legal obligations, and the Government’s strong commitment to promoting fairness. Of course, men are impacted too. Indeed, latest figures show a higher redundancy rate for men. That is why we are committed to ensuring a fair recovery for all.

A recent High Court ruling found the universal credit childcare payment system to be unlawful and discriminatory against women, after a single mother was forced to pay childcare costs upfront and then claim back, forcing her into debt and causing psychological harm. Does the Minister agree that the universal credit childcare offer is inadequate for parents who rely on it, 80% of whom are women? Will she urge the Department of Work and Pensions to improve it?

I will speak to my colleagues in the DWP, but I know that the Government have been offering unprecedented levels of support to provide for all those people who require support in childcare. That includes the recent £20 uplift, which the Chancellor agreed to last year.

A recent TUC survey found that 71% of mothers asking to be furloughed as they could not juggle work with childcare have been refused by their employers. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that affordable childcare is available for all parents who need it, so that they are not forced out of work by this pandemic?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government have provided significant support for those people who have been furloughed, and there is a childcare provision within universal credit. We recognise that parents across the country are having difficulties during the pandemic, and we have put several measures in place to ensure they have the support required.

The pandemic has made flexible working a necessity for many women, who have a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, but under the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 an employee is eligible to request flexible working arrangements only after 26 consecutive weeks of work for their employer. What consideration has the Minister given to the recommendation in the new Women and Equalities Committee report to remove that 26-week threshold?

We have a manifesto commitment to further encourage flexible working, and we are going to be consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. We know that the Women and Equalities Committee has released a report, and we are carefully considering it and will provide our conclusions in due course. We appreciate the work of the Committee on these important issues and the contributions of those who gave evidence.

Children: Equality of Opportunity

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912137)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912141)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912142)

Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards and investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children during the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme.

In Wales, there has been a reduction in real-terms education spending in the last 10 years of 8.4%. I appreciate that education is devolved, but the children of Delyn are also children of the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend’s brief effectively spans all Government Departments from an equalities standpoint, what can she do to ensure that children in Wales are not forgotten by the UK Government?

My hon. Friend is correct that education is a devolved matter in Wales. However, it is important that we work closely together to ensure that every child receives the best education, wherever they live in the UK, and to give them the best start in life. For example, our UK-wide safeguarding policy is essential to allow children to concentrate on their learning without fear of negative influence. Our equality data programme will seek to use data from across the UK to help inform future policy, making equality of opportunity a reality for all.

I thank the Minister for her reply and the initiatives contained within it. We know school closures have had a very unequal impact on children. Does she agree that the best way to address that is to safely reopen schools as quickly as possible?

We are committed to getting all pupils and students back into schools and colleges as soon as the public health picture allows. In doing so, the Government will be guided by the scientific and medical experts. When Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, we intend to publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown, including plans for reopening education. We hope we will be able to commence the full reopening of schools from Monday 8 March. We have committed to providing schools, parents and young people with a minimum of two weeks’ notice for that return to on-site provision.

What support for children with learning disabilities are the Government pursuing to ensure equality of opportunity?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for many 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. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that we are providing £40.8 million this year for the Family Fund to help more than 80,000 low-income families who have children with disabilities or serious illnesses. That includes £13.5 million specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which may include assistive technology to aid remote learning.

Social Mobility

Our focus is on levelling up and ensuring that no one is left behind. During the pandemic, we are ensuring that all children get the chance to succeed through a further £300 million to schools for tutoring, new summer school initiatives and the covid premium.

Last month, it was reported that the civil service fast stream is no longer publishing data on the social backgrounds of the people it hires, which came with information obtained by a freedom of information request showing that the success of those from private schools entering the fast stream is double that of those from comprehensive schools. Can I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to push the civil service fast stream to publish that data regularly, so that it leads by example and demonstrates its commitment to social mobility?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the civil service should be recruiting the best people, regardless of their background, and that it should be open to all. We will be publishing the data that he asks for by April of this year, and the Government will have more to say shortly on widening opportunity in the civil service.

Geographic Inequality of Opportunity

We need to tackle the scourge of geographic inequality—average hourly wages are nearly 30% higher in London than they are in the north-west—and that is why I have asked the Equalities Hub to look beyond protected characteristics and identify additional barriers that people face up and down the country.

Coastal communities such as Lytham St Annes are home to substantial tourism and hospitality sectors. Those sectors have traditionally employed large numbers of women, but they have been particularly hit by the pandemic. Given that inequality in coastal resorts is a long-recognised issue, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that coastal towns—in Lancashire, especially—can build back better?

We are directing vital support to seaside towns through the £230 million coastal communities fund. We recognise the unique challenges faced by towns such as St Annes, and that will be very much in our thoughts as we look to the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I am pleased to say that we will be publishing prospectives for those shortly, and no doubt my hon. Friend will be interested in applying.

BAME People in Criminal Justice System

What recent discussions she has had with the Justice Secretary on the disproportionate number of BAME people in the criminal justice system. (912143)

Tackling race disparity in the criminal justice system remains a priority for all Ministers in my Department. We have a broad programme of work to address the issue, including work on the collection of data and the implementation of policies that tackle disproportionality, together with scrutiny and oversight. The criminal justice system race and ethnicity board reviews the progress of this work.

A lack of diversity in the judiciary is something that should concern the Government. It is deeply troubling, as it is one of the major reasons that all communities, including black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, lack confidence in the criminal justice system. There are currently zero Supreme Court judges who are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Steps need to be taken to fix the justice system so that it is fair and equal for everyone. Will the Government introduce a clear target for a representative judiciary, as called for in the Lammy review?

The hon. Member raises an important issue in relation to diversity in the judiciary, and it is important to ensure that women and black and ethnic minorities come through the system as lawyers. Indeed, there are a lot of women coming through the system, but we need to improve that as well. From 2014 to 2019, there have been some small improvements in judicial diversity. The proportion of women judges increased from 24% to 32% in the courts and from 43% to 46% in tribunals, and the proportion of BAME judges increased from 6% to 7% in the courts and from 9% to 11% in tribunals, but we need to do more work. The judiciary is independent, and I know that it is very concerned about this issue.

Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Community

Any discrimination against LGBT people is unacceptable, and the Government are committed to supporting LGBT people and improving the lives of all citizens. We are working across agencies to ensure that they are safe from violence and discrimination. Internationally, we have awarded £3.2 million of new funding to help Commonwealth Governments and civil society to repeal outdated discriminatory laws.

Recent findings show an alarming rise in homophobic hate crimes across the United Kingdom, from 6,655 in 2014-15 to an astonishing 18,000 last year. These figures show that, despite our best efforts, many people are continuing to suffer discrimination and abuse, so does my hon. Friend agree that much more must be done? What more will her Department do to ensure that the United Kingdom can really become a country where facing discrimination on the basis of who you love really is a thing of the past?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I encourage those who may have been the victim of hate crime to speak out and contact the police. This Government are proud to have supported Galop, the country’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, and we welcome its new specialist hate crime helpline, which launched last week. To further ensure the safety of LGBT people in this country and around the world, the Government are committed to ending conversion therapy and delivering an international conference.

Taxation: People with Disabilities

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring that the taxation system does not discriminate against people with disabilities. (912145)

The Government recognise it is important that the tax system treats people fairly and consistently, while also raising revenue for public services. We provide tax-free welfare benefits for those who have extra costs associated with their disability, including disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance. We have also made available several VAT zero rates for the purchase of certain equipment and appliances designed solely for use by a disabled person, such as the VAT zero rate for the leasing of vehicles through the Motability scheme.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. I have been contacted by a constituent who is visually impaired and needs expensive corrective glasses annually, on which she has to pay VAT. Does the Minister agree that it is not fair that the greater a person’s sight disability, the greater the tax they pay? Will she agree to discuss with the Treasury that, as glasses are an essential item for my constituent, they should not be taxed as a luxury?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government ensure that the supply of health and welfare services, including opticians and eye tests, are exempt from VAT, which ensures that VAT is not a barrier to accessing medical treatment. Moreover, in addition to NHS complex lens vouchers, the Government already offer support for individuals to help with the cost of glasses through NHS optical vouchers. Those eligible for help include children and those on certain income-related benefits, and the value varies from £39 to £215 depending on the level of the patient’s prescription. However, I will write to my hon. Friend with full details so that she can assist her constituent.

Reducing Poverty

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912146)

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912160)

My colleagues and I at the DWP have frequent discussions with GEO Ministers on a wide range of issues. Throughout this pandemic the Government have sought to protect jobs and incomes, spending billions on strengthening welfare support for those most in need. Our long-term ambition is to level up across the United Kingdom, helping people back into work as quickly as possible, based on clear evidence of the importance of work in tackling poverty.

Child poverty is a stain on our nation, and hon. Members on both sides of the House should commit to working together to eradicate it. The Minister will know that, before the pandemic, child poverty was projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022, a disastrous thing for those children and something that will significantly damage life opportunities. What steps is he taking now to do everything possible to ensure this prediction does not come true?

As far as I am concerned, one child in poverty is one child too many. All evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty for families, and that is why we are supporting parents into work with our £30 billion plan for jobs and childcare offer. We recognise that times are tough for so many at the moment, which is why we have boosted our welfare system by over £7 billion this year to support those facing the most financial disruption.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to research by the Welsh gender equality charity Chwarae Teg that shows that women are twice as likely to be key workers in Wales, and that the effects of sector shut- downs, business closures and unemployment are falling disproportionately on women, who are more likely to lose their job in the pandemic? Will the Minister study the report and tell the House what practical steps the Government are taking to help them?

The female employment rate is at 72% and the female unemployment rate is at 4.7%. This is an issue we take incredibly seriously, not least the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who leads on this important work. I will, of course, study the report carefully, as will the Minister for Employment.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, as we build back better, we want to see a new generation of female tech and science entrepreneurs. Promoting science, technology, engineering and maths among girls is vital to this. Since 2010, 31% more girls and 34% more women are studying these subjects at A-level and university respectively. We are building on that programme with STEM ambassadors to encourage even more girls and women to come forward.

Many disabled people, and their carers too, are still in receipt of legacy benefits, which means they are not getting the £20 uplift that universal credit claimants have been getting. Does the Minister agree that that is discriminatory and needs to be addressed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I appreciate that many people are facing financial disruption due to the pandemic, which is why the Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place. Legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% last year and will increase by 0.5% from April, in line with prices.

I thank the safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for all her hard work to combat violence against women and girls. Will she join me in encouraging everybody who has experienced violence or supported those who have to submit their views to the Government’s consultation on the next violence against women and girls strategy, which closes next week, on 19 February? (912115)

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting the Government’s call for evidence on tackling violence against women and girls. We are asking the public, victims, charities, employers, health professionals, universities, colleges, the armed forces, the NHS and many more for their views, so that we can develop a national strategy that is fit for the 2020s. This is the largest ever call for evidence on crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, because we want to hear from all parts of society. I ask all hon. Members to play their part and encourage their constituents to contribute to this vital call for evidence before it closes on 19 February.

South Asians, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, are still experiencing three times the risk from coronavirus in this second wave, so take-up of the vaccine is vital. We know that historical issues of mistrust and culturally inappropriate public health information have contributed to the legitimate vaccine hesitancy. The Government have had time to plan to mitigate all this, but they have still not produced a clear strategy to engage with our black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches all our communities, particularly those who are unequally impacted?

I will be providing a second covid disparities report at the end of this month, which will provide more comprehensive detail of steps we have taken. However, this is an issue that we recognise is very serious. The disparities are changing for different groups; we have seen some progress, for instance, among black groups. However, we do emphasise that vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus. The Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS are working closely with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to support those receiving a vaccine and to help anyone who may have questions about the process. As part of that, we are working with faith and community leaders to give them advice and information about the universal benefits of vaccination and how their communities can get a vaccine.

The Government have failed to consider the impact on equalities resulting from their responses to the pandemic. Covid mortality rates are twice as high in deprived areas, and the lowest-paid are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs. That is why the Government have a legal duty, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, to consider the effects of policies on inequality, whether Ministers agree or not. As the Minister for Women and Equalities has yet to reply to my letter dated 14 January, can she now say that she will work to ensure that all Departments undertake and publish equality impact assessments on all their responses to this pandemic?

I completely reject the hon. Lady’s assertions. We do have a strategy, one part of which is to ensure that ethnic minorities are not stigmatised. The issues around coronavirus are complex. We have released information in various reports showing what the risk factors are and we have also outlined a plan to address them.

There is growing concern that an increasing number of women are becoming victims of online gambling addiction, with the resulting financial and mental health issues. What steps are the Government taking to truly understand the scale of the problem and safeguard women from predatory recruitment tactics? (912118)

Rates of problem gambling among women remain very low, but we know how devastating its impacts can be. The Gambling Commission is looking at how it collects data on gambling participation and problem gambling to make sure that we have access to even more robust and regular data on the issue. The Government are also reviewing the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure that we have the right protections in place to make gambling safer for all.