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Women and Equalities

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Covid-19: Equal Economic Recovery

What steps she is taking with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to help ensure an equal economic recovery from the covid-19 outbreak for women. (900670)

We have targeted economic support at those who need it most, including with unprecedented levels of support in sectors that are big employers of women, such as retail, hospitality and leisure, with the public sector also being a large employer of women. For private firms, the suspension of business rates until June will save employers almost £10 billion, helping to protect these jobs.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group has highlighted that young women aged 18 to 25 are the largest group to be furloughed, by age and gender. Will the Minister set out what discussions she is having with the Chancellor to ensure that those women are supported, so that we do not have a lost generation of young women even further adversely affected by the pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation. The economic impact of the pandemic by gender is not clearcut. Furlough take-up and redundancy impacts are affecting men and women differently. We know that women are slightly more likely to have taken up the furlough scheme, but the latest employment figures continue to show a higher redundancy rate for men. So our economic package of support is to address everyone, and if he looks at the support for jobs package, the summer economic update that the Chancellor announced, as well as announcements in the Budget on the kickstart scheme and so on, he will see that all these things are addressing the issues on employment for young people and especially for those young women.

Evidence shows that mothers have been harder hit by the pandemic than fathers in terms of redundancies and their employment opportunities. Does my hon. Friend support the words of the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday when she was advocating flexible working in order to overcome some of these problems? Would the Minister, like me, support seeing job sharing as part of a forthcoming employment Bill?

I always support the Secretary of State for International Trade. It is a pleasure to work with her, and we definitely want to see more flexible working and more job sharing. I cannot say for certain what will be part of the employment Bill, but we will speak to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and across government.

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech promised an employment Bill that would extend

“redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination”.

Despite ministerial assurances of action during my Westminster Hall debate on this issue last month, the employment Bill and that promise are nowhere to be seen. If the UK Government are not going to deliver on their promise to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination, will they devolve employment law to Scotland so that the Scottish Parliament can deliver this much-needed reform?

This is a very serious issue. We are having a roundtable with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look at pregnancy discrimination. I reiterate that covid-19 and the new employment Bill do not change the fact that there is a law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination—there is no place for it in any circumstances. Employers should be regularly reviewing their risk assessments for all pregnant workers and implementing any controls needed.

The economic impact of covid has hit women disproportionately hard. According to the Women’s Budget Group, 52% of people who have been furloughed are women, despite their making up only 47% of the workforce. The Government have promised to strengthen pregnancy and maternity protections “when parliamentary time allows”. Does the Minister not agree that this is an urgent priority given that the end of furlough is approaching and there is grave concern about unequal job losses in the autumn?

I refer the hon. Lady to my answer to the earlier question; this is not what the evidence tells us. I have seen the Women’s Budget Group report. What we are seeing is that men are more likely to be made redundant and women are more likely to be furloughed. The furlough is part of the economic package of support we have put in place. It is not right to say that women are more economically impacted when they are still having their jobs, but we do recognise that when the furlough scheme ends, we may see some changes. We are working to protect everybody in this crisis, both men and women. We have made a statement on the employment Bill, which is that the Government are committed to bringing it forward to protect and enhance workers’ rights. But given the profound impact that the pandemic is having on the economy and on the labour market, now is not the right time to introduce the employment Bill. In the interim, the Government have taken the unprecedented but necessary steps I mentioned to support business and protect jobs.

Voter ID: Equalities Impact Assessments

The Government take their public sector equality duty extremely seriously. In 2021, the Cabinet Office commissioned a nationally representative survey on the ownership of photo identification. The findings from that research and our ongoing engagement with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, including a wide range of charities and civil society organisations, will continue to inform our plans to ensure that voter identification is rolled out in a way that is inclusive for all voters.

I could probably write an essay on identity documents, having been responsible for the matter when I was in government a decade ago. I am particularly concerned about constituents of mine who are Commonwealth citizens, who are often seeking to achieve status in the UK but whose identity documents are with the Home Office—they do not have those identity documents to prove that they can vote. What is the Minister’s solution for those individuals?

The legislation will make it clear that local authorities must provide a voter card free of charge if an elector does not have one of the approved forms of photographic identification.

Research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People shows that one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters could vote independently and in secret at the most recent general election. That is unacceptable. Given the barriers, is the Minister not concerned that the introduction of voter ID will only make it even more difficult for people living with sight loss to vote independently and in secret?

We looked into the impact of voter ID on disabled voters, and our research, which draws on the most comprehensive information available, indicates that 97% of disabled electors report having at least one form of photographic identification, so we do not believe that it will affect them. As I mentioned in response to the previous question, we will have legislation that will make it clear that local authorities must provide a voter card free of charge so that people will still be able to vote. We must remember why we are doing this: no one should lose their right to vote because someone else has assumed their identity. Personation is very difficult to prove and prosecute, but it is not a victimless crime and it is absolutely right that we resolve the matter.

Gender-targeted Pricing

Prices in the UK are set by competition, not the Government, but it is unlawful to offer goods or services to women and men at a range of different prices. The Equality Act 2010 provides that a retailer must not discriminate against the customer either by failing to provide goods or services, or by providing them on different terms, on the basis of someone’s sex.

It is more than two years since I first raised this issue in this place and very little has changed: women still pay, on average, 20% more for basic goods and services. We have heard already today that women have been hardest hit in this pandemic and we know there is a gender pay gap. If someone comes, like me, from a single-parent family with three daughters, that family faces a much bigger challenge in the current circumstances. The Minister has said that it is unlawful; will the Government please take steps to ensure that the 2010 Act is enforced when it comes to gender-targeted pricing?

It is probably worth my letting the hon. Lady know that I understand what she says but disagree with the premise and the argument she makes. It is important to recognise that in a legal sense there is no discrimination involved in gender pricing, as there is nothing to stop a woman buying a product marketed towards men, or vice versa. The Government want a society in which women and men are free to make the choices that suit them, regardless of rigid stereotypes. I am afraid I think that the Bill the hon. Lady wanted to enact would actually have had the unintended consequence of reinforcing stereotypes.

STEAM Subjects: Gender-balanced Representation

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Education on increasing gender-balanced representation in take up of STEAM subjects. (900673)

The Government are committed to ensuring that more women can take up the opportunities in science and technology. Currently, only one in five of the technology workforce are women, but projects such as the skills bootcamps aim to turn that around. Of the 2,799 attendees at our first bootcamps, 47% were women. In the west midlands, the courses on women in data and women in software were oversubscribed by around four times. We are investing another £43 million to provide another 16,000 places.

Science, technology and biomedicine have been at the forefront of our response to the covid-19 crisis and they will help us on our road to recovery. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that we get more people into those careers, including stem cell research for women?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: bioscience is a really important area and never more so than during this pandemic. It is our chemists, our biochemists and our biologists who are leading our way out of covid. The work that we do through our science learning partnerships aims to increase the take-up of triple science at GCSE—chemistry, physics and biology—and that will make sure that more of our young people can become the scientists of the future.

Prison Places for Women

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on plans to increase the number of prison places for women. (900674)

Investing in the women’s custodial estate will improve conditions for female prisoners through modern, gender-specific and trauma-informed design. It will further ensure capacity is in place to give effect to sentences imposed by the independent courts.

When mothers are imprisoned for minor offences, the separation and loss for the child are detrimental to their wellbeing. The charity Women in Prison tells us that the most effective way to tackle the causes of crime and to prevent women from reoffending is to invest in women’s centres. Given that the Government’s own female offender strategy pledges to reduce the number of women in prison, why are they proposing to invest £150 million on new female prison places, and what representation has the Minister made to recommit to reducing the number of women in prison?

It is important that we continue to invest in women’s centres in the community, and that is exactly what we are doing. For the very reason that the hon. Lady makes about keeping relationships with the family, part of the money that she refers to will go to providing accommodation so that individuals can make family visits to those women sentenced to custody, to keep those relationships going. Prisons need to be a place of security, but they must also be a place of humanity, rehabilitation and hope, and that is what we are investing in.

Equality of Opportunity for UK Children

This Government believe in levelling up for people of all ages and we are investing more in the education of students from lower-income families so that they can unlock opportunities. Our weighted national funding formula and the pupil premium fund academic interventions as well as important pastoral initiatives and are further supplemented during this difficult time by the national tutoring programme and the holiday activities and food programme, which will also help those students.

Young people in my constituency deserve the very best opportunities outside of education. That is why I have been campaigning for an OnSide youth centre in West Bromwich, which has proved so successful in Wolverhampton. Will my hon. Friend support my campaign for a state-of-the-art youth centre, backed by local business, so that we can truly level up opportunities for young people in West Bromwich East?

I massively congratulate my hon. Friend on her true passion and interest in the young people of West Bromwich. The Government recognise the impact of youth services, which are improving the life chances and wellbeing of young people. The Government have already funded OnSide with £6 million last year to support young people during the pandemic. Another £30 million of the Youth Investment Fund has been committed as capital investment for 2021-22. That will provide investment in new resources as well as in refurbished safe spaces. Further details of the timetable and allocations will be announced very soon, and I recommend that my hon. Friend keeps a sharp look out for that announcement.

Covid-19: Disabled People in the Workplace

Over the past year, there have been 2,500 more Disability Confident employers, a much more flexible system and greater extended support through Access to Work going forward.

According to the Business Disability Forum, 11% of employers furloughed a disabled employee at the beginning of the pandemic after failing to provide reasonable adjustments. Disabled people have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, but it is clear that disabled workers are continuing to be forced out of employment through a lack of access to reasonable adjustments. Will the Government introduce mandatory timescales for employer-implementation of reasonable adjustments and end the Access to Work payment cap to prevent the disability employment gap from widening further?

As I outlined earlier, there are greater numbers of Disability Confident employers and Access to Work has been adapted during covid to help the disabled, with greater online assistance, extended timeframes, flexibility, mental health support and much, much more, about which I will get the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to write in specific detail to the hon. Lady.

Conversion Therapies

We set out in the Queen’s Speech our intention to ban conversion therapy, which is an abhorrent practice. We will consult in September and legislate as soon as possible. We are also putting in place support for victims.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I hope you can hear me today.

I was really delighted to see the ban on conversion therapy appear in the Queen’s Speech, but, as we know, conversion therapy is an issue not just in the UK, but right around the globe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these practices should not just be outlawed in the UK, but that we should work with our global partners to support LGBT safety worldwide?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are proud that we are instituting the UK’s first ever international LGBT conference under the theme of “Safe To Be Me”, which is about protecting people from persecution worldwide. The conference will be led by Lord Herbert and will take place in June next year. I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to appear at it.

I am pleased that the consultation will be starting soon. Does the Secretary of State intend for the Cass review to be part of the consultation, and will the consultation address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity?

The consultation will address the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. The Cass review is taking place separately; that is a matter for the Department of Health, but of course we want to ensure that the under-18s are protected from making irreversible decisions about their own future.

UK’s Presidency of the G7: Gender Equality

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to promote gender equality through the UK’s presidency of the G7. (900679)

We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I have convened a group of leaders in the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, under the leadership of Sarah Sands, to push for better education for women and girls, economic empowerment and ending violence against women across the world.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response; that is great news. Can she tell me whether the Gender Equality Advisory Council will be working to improve women’s and girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and industries?

I am pleased to say that the GEAC is packed with inspirational STEM leaders, such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, and the CERN director general Dr Fabiola Gianotti; they are leading figures. A key aim of the GEAC is to ensure that more girls and women are involved in the industries of the future such as technology and science, so that they can get those well-paid jobs and help to drive forward progress across the world.

At the G7 summit in August 2019, the Government made three commitments for domestic progress on gender equality: delivery of the Domestic Abuse Bill; reform of parental leave; and action on workplace sexual harassment. But last year just 3.5% of fathers took shared parental leave, and the TUC found that one in two women experience sexual harassment at work. We are still waiting for the Government to respond to consultations on both those issues. What does the Minister think it says about her record that only one of those commitments has so far been completed? When will she bring forward reforms to these schemes?

As the hon. Member points out, we have brought forward and enacted the leading Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Minister for Safeguarding is on the Front Bench; she has done a fantastic job on that. We will shortly be bringing forward the response on sexual harassment. Moreover, I want to ensure that at this year’s G7 leaders across the world are held to account for their record in protecting women and girls.

Topical Questions

The UK is using our presidency of the G7 this year to champion women’s and girls’ rights at home and around the world with an independent Gender Equality Advisory Council to bring fresh ideas and new voices to the heart of G7 discussions. The council met for the second time last week, and I look forward to hearing its recommendations to G7 leaders in June. It is important that women and girls are at the heart of our plans to build back better.

In the recent Queen’s Speech there were many opportunities to level up across the country, including in my great constituency of Wolverhampton South West. What is my right hon. Friend doing to see that we can unleash the potential of some of our more deprived areas to build back better after covid?

We are determined to tackle the scourge of geographical inequality. That is why we have taken on responsibility for the Social Mobility Commission, which is going to focus on the three Es—employment, education and enterprise—and we are currently recruiting a chair to spearhead that agenda.

How will the Secretary of State ensure that the voices of survivors of so-called conversion therapy and the people who support them will be heard in the consultation on a Bill to outlaw all conversion therapies, which have no place in all settings and all LGBT+ statuses, regardless of whether someone is consenting or coerced? (900715)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has already met survivors of conversion therapy, and we are determined that they should be closely involved in the consultation we are holding on the forthcoming legislation. I completely agree with the hon. Lady: it is an abhorrent practice that we need to stop in the United Kingdom.

In Redcar and Cleveland, and across the country, the pandemic has left many people without the certainty of work, but particularly those disabled and differently abled people who already feel disadvantaged in the jobs market. We have announced an ambitious plan for jobs, but can the Minister point to specific interventions he is making to help more disabled people into work in Redcar and Cleveland and the wider Tees Valley? (900711)

There has been an 800% increase in Disability Confident employers in the Durham-Tees Valley area. The newly re-elected Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and our new Hartlepool MP are utterly committed to ensuring that more disabled people get access to work and into work.

In the UK, two weeks’ parental leave and pay is in place after stillbirth, but there is no such support for anyone who has experienced a miscarriage before 24 weeks of pregnancy. Will the Minister support my calls to the UK Government and allow families to grieve for their profound loss by legislating for paid leave for everyone that experiences miscarriage? (900716)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. We have looked at seeking to change the rules about neonatal leave. Any grieving situation is incredibly difficult, but as we work towards the employment Bill, we will make sure that we can come up with a rounded view for anybody that is grieving.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to the Select Committee that she ended the role of her LGBT advisory panel because there were basic disagreements over the rights of trans people to self-ID. Argentina, our co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, whose conference we host next June, has legally accommodated self-ID for trans people since 2012 without a problem, and now more members of the coalition are following Argentina’s example without a problem. How is she going to find a new panel that both has authority and agrees with her in the continuing refusal to accept the right of trans people to self-ID? Can she explain how Britain can host a conference entitled “Safe To Be Me” without supporting the right to be “me”? (900712)

The former LGBT advisory panel’s tenure ended on 31 March 2021. I am grateful to its members for the important insights that they have provided on important policy areas such as ending conversion therapy and the impact of covid on LGBT people. The Prime Minister has appointed Lord Herbert as special envoy for LGBT rights. That role will have an international and domestic focus, and I am confident that we will be able to work with our international partners on this issue. We believe that the current provisions in the Gender Recognition Act 2004 Act allow for those who wish legally to change their genders to do so, so that it is safe to be them and they have the right to be themselves. We have therefore decided, as we have said before to my hon. Friend, that the Act will not be changed.

My constituent Julia was breastfeeding her child in a park when a stranger started taking long-lens photos of her. She and I were shocked that there was nothing that could be done about this unwelcome intrusion. Does the Minister think this is an acceptable situation and, if not, will she support action to prevent this kind of voyeurism? (900717)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this very important topic. This is totally unacceptable behaviour and I hope he will welcome the Government’s forthcoming violence against women and girls strategy, which we will be publishing later this year, drawing in the views of more than 180,000 members of the public to help shape our policies for the coming decade. This is unacceptable and we will deal with it.