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Women and Equalities

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Same-sex Couples: Insemination Services

Regulation of fertility treatment services is UK-wide, but policy is devolved. In England, decisions about local fertility services are determined by clinical commissioning groups, taking account of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, which include provision for same-sex female couples.

At present, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority guidance largely prohibits supplying sperm for insemination at home. Same-sex couples who are trying to get pregnant have few options via the NHS other than to access insemination services from a registered UK clinic. That means that couples who live further away from such clinics face further costs in their aspiration to start a family. Will the Minister, working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the HFEA, explore ways in which this issue could be mitigated?

On the question about the delivery of sperm to residential addresses, that can be done across the UK, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority advises against it because the origin of the sample and whether it is undamaged cannot be guaranteed. Undergoing treatment at a licensed UK clinic provides the donor and the patient with legal certainty about their parental status and their future responsibilities, but I am very happy to take up the hon. Lady’s question further with the Minister for Innovation, as this sits in his portfolio.

Covid-19: Female Employment

The latest Office for National Statistics official statistics show the female employment rate at 71.8% at the end of January 2021. The Government recognise that times are hard for many women and men, which is why we have extended the furlough scheme until September, alongside new measures in our plan for jobs, such as our £2 billion kickstart scheme and the restart programme, which launches this summer.

Covid forced short-term modifications to working practices, which demonstrate that change is possible, but proactive steps are needed to secure long-term improvements in flexible working to support the work and caring responsibilities of women in particular. Does the Minister agree that flexibility should be available from day one of a new job rather than being a possibility six months in, will she ensure that the forthcoming employment Bill provides for that, and will she confirm that that Bill will be in the Queen’s Speech?

The hon. Lady raises something really important. At the Department for Work and Pensions we have been incredibly flexible with our team, and they have been incredibly flexible as a result, so I absolutely agree that flexibility is really important and will be keenly supporting changes to make sure that more women are part of the workforce. It is pleasing that, compared with men’s, the fall in women’s employment has been better through the covid pandemic. As the UK Government, we want to do as much as we can to support women to progress and thrive in the workplace or, indeed, working at home more flexibly.

UK’s G7 Presidency: Role of Women

As part of the G7, we will be hosting the gender equality advisory council. Led by Sarah Sands, it will help women build back better across the world, including on ending violence against women, women’s economic empowerment, and education for women and girls.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that flexible working is key, not just to open up more opportunities for more people but to address the UK’s perennial productivity puzzle?

My hon. Friend is right: flexible working should be the standard offer from employers. Recent Government Equalities Office research shows that there are 30% more applicants where jobs are advertised as flexible. That particularly brings benefits to women and those who live outside the major cities, and it can help us level up our country and make it more productive.

Safer Streets for Women

The tragic death of Sarah Everard has reminded us that we need to work together to ensure women do not feel at risk of harm on our streets. Since this senseless tragedy, we have taken immediate action by more than doubling the safer streets fund and building on what works by supporting measures such as better lighting and CCTV. The Minister for Crime and Policing will also hold a summit with police, the violence against women and girls sector, and industry representatives from the night-time economy on preparations to protect women as pandemic restrictions lift.

I thank the Minister for her response. Following that tragic case, a good number of my constituents have been in touch with their concerns over whether their local area is safe. One of them, Courtney Beech, who is an outreach worker for Drop Zone in Barrow, is concerned about the lack of lighting in local parks and the cemetery. What efforts are the Government making to ensure that good practice is being shared with local authorities and other local organisations to keep women feeling safe and secure, especially at night time?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. No one should feel unsafe walking on the street, least of all those who are doing valuable work in the community like Drop Zone. I hope he can reassure his constituents of the Government’s commitment to this issue. The safer streets fund has been more than doubled so it can support interventions such as street lighting and CCTV, which will make people feel safer, and they are the responsibility of local authorities.

In order to make the streets safer for women, we must tackle the culture underpinning male violence. Does my hon. Friend agree with the conclusion of the February 2020 report of the Government Equalities Office that the use of pornography is an important contributing factor to harmful sexual behaviours? If so, how will she make sure that the Government emphasis is not simply on street lights, but also on the causes of male violence against women?

I think I can certainly say that I personally agree with my right hon. Friend. I do know that these issues have been looked at by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). She is not here today, unfortunately, but she has been looking into this issue and I will follow it up with her to provide a more comprehensive response to my right hon. Friend’s question.

Female Participation in STEM

Science and technology will drive our country’s future and women are brilliant at STEM— science, technology, engineering and maths. There are now more girls taking chemistry and biology at A-level than boys, but we need to continue to make progress in other subjects. Initiatives such as T-levels provide an excellent opportunity for girls interested in STEM.

Could I ask the Minister to encourage young women to utilise options like the South Durham University Technical College in Newton Aycliffe, where every one of last year’s students got an outcome they wanted, whether it was a job or further education? The UTC is supported by companies such as Hitachi and Gestamp, and that can create great STEM-based career opportunities. However, currently only about 20% of the students are female. Does she agree with me that more should consider this educational option? The next time she is in the north-east, will she come to see for herself the opportunities that are being created,?

I thank my hon. Friend for championing women in STEM. I congratulate the UTC in Newton Aycliffe for helping women to gain access to prestigious engineering jobs and higher technical opportunities. It is great to see more women taking up subjects such as engineering, but we would like to see more. A really proper and meaningful conversation with a woman role model who has already broken through STEM barriers can inspire girls and young women to enter STEM careers. Companies, such as those he mentions, have an important role in that.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. Participation in STEM can lead to exciting career opportunities in such sectors as renewable energy, but to ensure that young women have every opportunity to pursue their ambitions there must be a career-long pathway that enables them to realise their full potential. That should include fair recruitment processes, the promotion of alumni networks that ensure skill retention and the development of retention programmes. I would welcome an assurance from my hon. Friend that she is liaising with her ministerial colleagues to put in place a route map that includes such staging posts.

It is really positive that we have more women studying to become doctors and that four out of five students studying to become vets are women, but it is less good that only one in five engineering students are women. Initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, which was launched by EngineeringUK, is bringing together Government, business and academia to increase the number and diversity of young people pursuing engineering codes. As one of many Government organisations who have signed the code, we have pledged to work with the engineering community to improve quality targeting, inclusivity and reach of engineering activities.

Covid-19: Disabled People

What steps the Government are taking to help protect disabled people from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (914006)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. As part of Access to Work, we have introduced a more blended offer to help disabled people find and stay in work, including prioritising applications from disabled people in the clinically extremely vulnerable group.

The UK’s high and unequal covid death toll includes disabled people, who account for six out of 10 covid deaths. Last month’s Office for National Statistics data showed that both disabled men and women are more than three times more likely to die if they contract covid than non-disabled people. Even when we adjust for various factors including age or pre-existing health conditions, there is still an additional covid risk associated with disability. So I repeat my question from last June: what assessment have the Government undertaken of the covid deaths of working-age disabled social security claimants? Given their additional risk, what are the Government doing to protect them?

I know that the hon. Lady is very passionate about making sure that anybody with barriers, anybody impacted on by this pandemic, is absolutely supported, and that is something that we have been doing at DWP. Through our Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, we are listening to and engaging with charities and hearing from those people who are working, those with learning disabilities, autistic people, and people with complex needs. Of course, this is an incredibly worrying time for people with disabilities. The Minister is looking at this very carefully and will keep it under review.

Conversion Therapy

I am committed to banning conversion therapy. It is an abhorrent practice and I will shortly be bringing forward plans to do just that.

I am grateful for that response. I am absolutely clear that this practice has no place in a civilised society. Being from the LGBT+ community is not an illness to be treated or cured, and I agree with the Prime Minister who calls conversion therapy “abhorrent” and “repulsive”. In the light of this, what can the Minister do to accelerate the ban?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been working to make sure that the measures that we put in place are enforceable and fully researched. I am confident that we will be able to announce progress on this very soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) are absolutely right to condemn this dreadful practice. The problem with it is that not only is it cruel, but it does not work—it is absolutely pointless. As well as imposing a ban, what can my right hon. Friend do to educate religions or other groups who think that this abhorrent practice has a purpose?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that practices that harm or try to convert somebody into being something they are not, are not just wrong but completely inappropriate and unacceptable. That is why we will be bringing forward our plans to ban this practice very shortly. He is right that it should be true in all circumstances, including with religious practices. Of course, we must protect religious free speech, but we cannot condone those harmful practices taking place.

It is good to hear the Minister’s words after three years of dither and delay that have cost the Government three members of their LGBT panel. Can she now give us a legislative timetable for when ending this archaic practice of conversion therapy will be on the statute book once and for all?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to get on with doing this. I can assure her that since I got this job a year ago I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is properly enforceable and has the right measures in place. We have been looking at international experience to ensure that we do this correctly, but I am very keen to get on with it and I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very much on it.

The Minister will be aware that it has been almost three years since the Government committed to ending the practice of conversion therapy. Will she therefore take this opportunity to apologise to all those who have been harmed by these abhorrent practices as a result of the Government’s inaction, and commit today to bringing forward a full legislative ban on practices to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, to give all LGBT people the protection that they deserve?

I am very clear that these practices are utterly abhorrent. I would point out that I have been in this job for a year and I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is enforceable. I have also dealt with a number of other long-standing issues, such as responding to the consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to make the process simpler and kinder for transgender people, improving transgender health care and changing the blood donation criteria for gay men donating blood. We are also working on an international LGBT conference, entitled Safe to Be Me, to end discrimination across the world. It is always important with legislation to ensure that we get it right and that it is properly enforceable, and we will be bringing plans forward shortly.

Covid-19: Working Parents

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on working parents. (914011)

We know that the pandemic has been hard on all families, especially those who have been juggling work and childcare. That is one of the reasons why schools have remained open to the children of key workers throughout this time, and why early years settings have remained open to all since last June. I meet regularly with colleagues across Government to discuss support for families.

Universal credit’s young parent penalty denies single parents under 25 years old the same level of social security as those above that age, pushing those affected—90% of whom are women, and the majority of them in work—into poverty. What representations is the Minister making to her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to fix this arbitrary inequality and discriminatory practice in the social security system and to abolish the young parent penalty?

This UK Government have put unprecedented amounts—billions—into support for jobs and incomes, including the £150 million flexible support fund, which helps women access childcare. The billions that the UK has put into supporting jobs, especially for those on low incomes, are yet another reminder of why the people of Scotland increasingly agree that they are better off as part of the UK.

Topical Questions

We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I am convening a group of leaders in the G7 gender equality advisory council this year under the newly appointed chair, Sarah Sands, with leaders such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, Ritu Karidhal, who helped to lead India’s Mars orbital mission and Iris Bohnet, who has revolutionised our understanding of fairness in the work- place. Together, we can lead on education for women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, and ending violence against women across the world.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I commend her on her choice of Darlington for the newly announced Department for International Trade hubs? I look forward to welcoming her to the Tees Valley. I also welcome her commitment to a ban on conversion therapy. Does she agree that this so-called therapy is abuse and that those who perpetrate such abuse should be prevented in law from being able to do so? As a gay man and a Christian, I believe that such controls must also extend to religious organisations that seek to change a person’s sexuality. Will she ensure that the ban extends to these too?

I was delighted to announce yesterday that we will be bringing a trade and investment hub to Darlington. We are also looking at moving the headquarters of our Equalities Office to the north of England, and no doubt Darlington will be putting in a bid for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to stamp out coercion and causing people harm wherever it takes place. That is what I am determined to do, and that is what I will be bringing forward shortly.

Over the past 10 days we have seen the Government try to defend their poor record on ending violence against women. They have recently reopened the consultation on this issue, but there is no use in consulting people if the Government are not going to take any action. Take the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which closed 18 months ago. We have seen no response from the Minister and no action from the Government, despite the fact that half of women experience sexual harassment at work. Can the Minister tell the House today when she will respond to this consultation and take the much-needed action to end sexual harassment?

It is quite wrong to say that the Government are taking no action on tackling violence against women. We will be publishing a new strategy in spring 2021, which will help to better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. The call for evidence to input into this work has been extended to 26 March, and it is vital that we hear from women everywhere, especially given recent public discussions and concerns.

There is so much that we have been doing, including the end-to-end rape review, which is looking at how every stage of the criminal justice system handles rape cases from police report to the final outcome at court. If the hon. Lady does want to work with us to end violence against women, the way to do it is constructively and not by making accusations that we are not taking any action.

We on this side of the House are very committed to ending violence against women and girls, but there is a pattern with this Government. They consult and they review, but they take very little action.

Yesterday we marked a year since the first national lockdown. The pandemic, as we all know, has had an unequal impact on our black, Asian and ethnic minority people. Last July, the Prime Minister commissioned a review into race and ethnic disparities. It was due to be published in December last year, than they delayed it until February this year, and it is now nearly April and still no report.

Can the Minister tell us when the Prime Minister intends to publish his report, and will it be accompanied by a race equality strategy to tackle the ongoing structural and institutional inequalities?

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will be reporting shortly, but it is disappointing that the hon. Lady seems to forget it is an independent commission. It is not the Prime Minister but an independent commission that will be publishing the report. What will happen afterwards is that the Government will provide their response to the commission’s recommendations, and we shall wait and see what the commission recommends.

What I have intended is that the commission has the freedom and the space to provide a set of recommendations that are robust. We are doing this not on dates but on data, and we need to make sure it is something that will stand the test of time and not just be a response to Opposition Members who are not actually interested in solving this problem but want to use it politically.

One of the less talked about but more impactful and successful recent Government-run programmes is the period product scheme for schools and colleges in England, which provides access to free sanitary products for those in education, including approximately 5,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in my Wakefield constituency. Many women across the UK, however, continue to struggle with access to sanitary products, including those experiencing homelessness and those in financial hardship as a consequence of the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend kindly outline for the House what steps she is taking to promote access to female sanitary products? (913986)

The Government have taken several important steps to ensure women are able to access the sanitary products they need. From 1 January 2021 the tampon tax has been abolished, with a zero rate of VAT applied to women’s sanitary products coming into effect. The Department for Education is leading a scheme to provide access to free period products in schools and colleges in England, NHS England announced in March 2019 that it will offer free period products to every hospital patient who needs them, including long-term patients, and the Home Office has changed the law to ensure that all people in custody are provided with free health and hygiene products, including period products.

In lockdown, we have all become much more dependent on technology, yet that technology is not designed to treat us equally, with video-conferencing and photo-sharing apps that do not recognise black faces, recruitment algorithms that discriminate on ethnicity, and the Home Office’s own visa application algorithm withdrawn because of bias. In this week of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what is the Minister doing to prevent structural racism from being further entrenched by new technologies? (913980)

The hon. Lady raises a very interesting question, and this is something the Government are aware of and are looking into. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tony Sewell, who is chairing the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities; I am aware that it has researched this extensively and I look forward to seeing what its report says on it.

I am sorry we did not get as many Members in as normal, but we have to move on to questions to the Prime Minister.