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Women and Equalities

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Conversion Therapy: Support for Victims

Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice that this Government will ban. We are launching a consultation in September to ensure the action we take is informed and effective.

Will my right hon. Friend outline what she is doing to promote LGBT safety not just in the UK but abroad?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaigning work on this issue. I am proud that we have announced the UK’s first ever global LGBT conference, Safe To Be Me. It will take place in June next year, and it will bring the world together to end persecution, violence and discrimination against LGBT people everywhere.

Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds: Geographic Equality of Opportunity

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve geographic equality of opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. (902446)

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve geographic equality of opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. (902452)

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve geographic equality of opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. (902456)

Every child, no matter what their background, should have access to world-class education that opens up opportunities for their future. Our pupil premium is targeted at schools based on the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has helped to close the attainment gap over the past decade, and it is expected to increase to more than £2.5 billion this year.

I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply. Early years education plays a key role in supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but there is a concern that the current funding arrangements are skewed against providers operating in deprived areas such as parts of Lowestoft in my constituency. I have corresponded with her on this issue, and we will hopefully meet shortly, but does she agree it is vital that all children, whatever their background, have ready access to high-quality and properly funded early years education? Will the Government take steps to ensure this happens?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. High-quality early years education is important, which is why the Government have invested over £3.5 billion every year for the past three years in supporting education for two, three and four-year-olds. Our recent education recovery announcement included increased investment in early years teaching.

I urge my hon. Friend and, indeed, all hon. Members to encourage families from lower-income backgrounds to take up the Government’s generous offer of 15 hours of free childcare for their two-year-olds. Children who take it up do better at school, and it gives them the vital skills that set them up for life.

In light of the recent Education Committee report, what is the Department doing to support disadvantaged white boys?

We are considering the recommendations of the Select Committee on Education very carefully, and all the evidence shows that high-quality teaching is the single most effective way to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. That is why it is so important that the pupil premium is used to support continuing professional development, as well as academic programmes and pastoral support. It is also why so much of our recovery funding is tilted towards top-quality teaching and tutoring for disadvantaged pupils.

Given the recent Ofsted report, what steps are the Government taking to make sure that all parts of the country have robust safeguarding measures in place so that every girl can fulfil her potential in school without fear of sexual abuse?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—sex abuse is not acceptable. The Government are taking action through the child sex abuse strategy and the violence against women and girls strategy, and we have published strengthened guidance for schools on peer-on-peer abuse and updated relationships, sex and health education. In addition, we have asked every local safe- guarding partnership across the country to review how they work to support schools to tackle this issue.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

What steps the Government is taking to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the labour market. (902448)

The Government recognise the importance of tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which is why we will extend the redundancy protection period for six months once a new mother has returned to work and provide similar protections for those parents taking adoption leave and shared parental leave. We will bring these measures forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

As a devastating Equality and Human Rights Commission report highlighted some five years ago, and certainly given the experience of too many of my constituents, discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is still widespread. When will the Government actually get their act together and bring in the legislation they have promised to stop employers making women redundant during pregnancy, and until at least six months after they have returned from maternity leave?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but legislation can only ever be part of the answer, which is why we have committed to bring together key business and family representative groups to tackle the questions on organisational culture and to ensure that women and employers know their rights. We will introduce legislative measures when parliamentary time allows.

EHRC research in 2016 found disturbingly high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in UK workplaces, and the Select Committee on Women and Equalities report highlighted that discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic should have been

“better anticipated by the government”

and that “preventative actions” should have been taken. So will Ministers tell me what representations they have made to Cabinet colleagues to urgently legislate to extend redundancy protection and finally put an end to this unacceptable discrimination?

As I said, when parliamentary time allows we will bring legislation forward. I value the hon. Lady’s work and the conversation we had with Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action. We continue to have plans for roundtables to understand the issues better, bringing those two groups together again, along with businesses.

Tragically, maternity discrimination does not just happen in the labour market—it also happens in labour wards. What work is the Minister doing across government to make sure that we drive down the horrific death toll that sees black women four times as likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts?

The Minister for Equalities is doing a lot of work in this area, as is our Department of Health and Social Care. We are committed to reducing inequalities in health outcomes, and Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent OBE, the chief midwifery officer, is leading work to understand why mortality rates are high, consider evidence and bring action together, because this is a complex situation. It is not just within maternity; it is far more holistic than that, for instance on whether people are accessing health services in the first place, and with the fact that we had some of the highest rates in the EU of obesity and underweight issues going into maternity and the highest rates of smoking in pregnancy in the EU—indeed, our level is even higher than America’s.

Research from the TUC has found that one in four pregnant women and new mums experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work during the pandemic, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough. The imminent tapering off of furlough prompts serious concern about unequal redundancies. Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and, instead of the Government simply extending their ineffective and complicated laws, make things simpler and more robust for mothers and businesses alike by introducing a German-style ban on making a pregnant woman or new mother redundant from notification of pregnancy to six months after they return to work?

We believe that extending the MAPLE—Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999—provisions is a better way of doing it that goes with the grain of the tribunal system that we have within this country. That is why, after due consideration, we will be bringing that forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Maternity Action highlights the fact that pregnant women and new mothers cannot devote their energy and finances to pursuing employment tribunal claims. The Minister says he wants to take steps to understand, but I can tell him that the thousands of women who have lost wages, entitlements or their job because of the pandemic, or the more who will unfortunately follow, need effective access now to justice and more time to enforce their rights. The Minister has also says he is committed to action. So what is the hold-up, and what does it say about this Government’s priorities?

I said earlier that legislation can only ever be part of the answer. There are robust laws at the moment whereby employers have to maintain their duty of care to their workforce, but, as I say, we are taking a different approach rather than bringing in an almost outright ban on making pregnant women and new mothers redundant. We are working with the grain of the existing UK approach, and this will happen soon as parliamentary time allows.

Covid-19: Disabled People on Legacy Benefits

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure the adequacy of support for disabled people on legacy benefits during the covid-19 outbreak. (902449)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak, including those who claim legacy benefits. We have delivered an unprecedented package of support, injecting billions into the welfare system, and we continue to monitor the impact on disabled people while ensuring that they are able to access the support that they need.

The Minister claims that legacy payments were not increased because disabled people have not faced additional costs during the pandemic, but the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 82% of disabled people have had to spend more money than they normally would during the pandemic. So will he set out for the House what evidence he is basing his assumptions on, because disabled people really do deserve better from this Government?

I will get the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to write to the hon. Gentleman, but he will be aware that we spend £57 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. At the same time, we have reformed employment and support allowance in the light of covid and brought in supportive changes to statutory sick pay, local housing allowance and the Access to Work programme. We continue to support the disabled into work.

Covid-19 Vaccine: Ethnic Minority Communities

What steps the Government are taking to encourage covid-19 vaccine take-up among ethnic minority communities. (902450)

What recent steps the Government have taken to increase covid-19 vaccine uptake among ethnic minority communities. (902458)

My third quarterly report to the Prime Minister on covid disparities summarises the unprecedented measures taken to promote vaccine uptake among ethnic minorities. This work includes establishing vaccination centres at around 50 different religious venues, with many more acting as pop-up sites, and, more recently, an NHS partnership with the Caribbean & African Health Network, which co-produced a toolkit to increase vaccine confidence and uptake. Thanks to such initiatives we saw an increase in both positive vaccine sentiment and vaccine uptake across all ethnic groups over the last quarter.

On Friday, I was delighted to visit the Al-Manaar mosque in North Kensington, which has administered more than 750 vaccines in pop-up clinics and done vaccine information sessions in English, Arabic and Somali. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an excellent model for encouraging vaccination in our diverse communities?

I do agree. I thank my hon. Friend for her engagement on this issue and for so effectively representing a very diverse constituency and its complex needs. I pay tribute to religious leaders in Kensington and everywhere else who have played such an important role in encouraging their congregations to be vaccinated. Initiatives such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned and the NHS’s plan for Ramadan, which includes the use of twilight jabbing, all help to build trust, increase vaccine confidence and tackle misinformation.

From speaking to care home operators in my constituency, I know that there is concern among ethnic minority groups, and particularly women, about their fertility chances being affected by their taking up the vaccine. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give to those ladies that their fertility will not be affected, and that it is entirely safe to take up the vaccine?

I should start by reiterating that the covid-19 vaccines are safe and there is no evidence that they affect fertility. I recognise that there is much information about the vaccines, as my hon. Friend describes. We are working with Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, the Chief Midwifery Officer in England, and others such as Media Medics, Dr Hazel Wallace and Dr Philippa Kaye, to encourage women to be vaccinated.

Official Development Assistance: Gender Equality

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of the reduction in official development assistance on gender equality in the developing world. (902451)

Tackling gender inequality is a core part of the Government’s mission. The integrated review confirms our commitment to tackling the discrimination, violence and inequality that hold women back. Girls’ education is one of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s seven key priorities for ODA spending, and this year we will invest £430 million in girls’ education, helping to achieve the global target to get 40 million girls into education.

We continue to demonstrate the UK’s leadership in reducing gender-based violence. At the recent Generation Equality Forum, we launched the £67.5 million What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale programme, which is the first global effort systematically to scale up proven violence-prevention approaches worldwide.

The Gender Equality Advisory Council recently recommended to G7 leaders that they renew their commitment to the 0.7% of GNI target for overseas development assistance and urged them to ring-fence any funding for gender equality projects. Will the Minister assure us that she has assessed the effect on such projects of the recent cut of ODA to 0.5% of GNI, and that she is working with Cabinet colleagues to mitigate that harm?

It is important to recognise that the UK will still spend more than £10 billion on ODA in 2021, and we will return to spending 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows. On impacts and equality assessments, I assure the hon. Lady that officials considered any impacts on women and girls, the most marginalised and vulnerable, people with disabilities and people from other protected groups when they developed their advice to Ministers as part of our decision-making process.

Online Abuse and Hate towards Women

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to prevent online abuse and hate towards women by (a) involuntary celibates and (b) others who use hate speech. (902453)

Online abuse and hate towards women is completely unacceptable, and no one should have to experience threats to their safety or abuse online—and even offline. Under our groundbreaking online safety legislation, companies will need to take swift and effective action not only on illegal content, but on legal but harmful content, including abuse and hate speech.

Involuntary celibate groups—incel groups, as they are known—are increasingly on the rise. This online community understands society to be hierarchised along the lines of sexual attractiveness, and these misogynists blame women for their own lack of status and for forcing them into involuntary celibacy. The harbouring of hate and resentment towards women has manifested itself in a spate of deadly terrorist attacks across the Atlantic, with at least two cases of terrorism here in the UK motivated by incel ideas. Will the Minister commit to having discussions with the Home Secretary to identify, and proscribe where necessary, any forms of this deadly misogynist hate group? Moreover, as most of this hate occurs online, can the Minister tell us what steps the online harms Bill will take to end this online abuse against women, when it will be introduced and when its measures will take effect?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she is doing to call out online abuse. She is absolutely right: there is no place for this sort of behaviour online. The online harms Bill will make much clearer the links between what online companies say they do and what they actually do, and women will be better supported to report abuse and should expect to receive appropriate, swift action from the platform. In addition, we have sponsored the Law Commission review on harmful online communications, looking at whether the law needs to be tightened around this issue; that will be reporting back shortly.

Employment Gap: Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority People

What steps she is taking with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce the employment gap for Black, Asian and ethnic minority people. (902454)

The Government are committed to supporting people from all backgrounds to move into work. Clearly, £2 billion has been spent on kickstart. There are 13,000 extra job coaches, and the job entry targeted support scheme is also being rolled out. For black, Asian and minority ethnic claimants specifically, we are taking action in 20 local authority areas with high populations of ethnic minority people.

With the Office for National Statistics finding that in coronavirus, black and minority ethnic people are less likely to be in management positions, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to earn less, confirming the Government’s own McGregor [Inaudible.] report, when will the Government implement its 26 recommendations?

I am happy to write to the hon. Lady through the Department when she gives me a more detailed version. I can just answer that we have 500 kickstart jobs per day, and from 20 locations—from Bradford to Barnet, Glasgow to Leicester, and Manchester to her own Ealing community—jobcentres are specifically helping BAME people.

BAME Students

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the comparative performance of BAME students in (a) further and higher education and (b) statutory education. (902455)

Equality of opportunity for talented young people across the country is one of the Government’s highest priorities. We are focused on giving people, whatever their background, ethnicity or circumstances, the high-quality education and skills that they deserve to succeed.

I am very pleased to hear that, but the reality in terms of the results is that those policies are not working. Most black and ethnic minority groups improve educational attainment relative to white students up to the age of 16, but from the age of 16 there is a drop off in every single group. Whether it be Chinese, who are the highest-performing, or the lowest-performing groups, all of them do less well relative to white students after the age of 16. While I recognise and welcome the Government’s rhetoric, what actual policies are there to do something about that alarming decline?

We recognise that raising educational standards is absolutely key to levelling up opportunity, providing £14 billion in over three years, the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade, investing it in early years education and targeting more than £3 billion in recovery funding. That is why, compared with 2009-10, the proportion achieving A-levels and equivalent improved across all ethnic groups, with the largest improvement in the black and black British ethnic group.

Topical Questions

As we look to build back better, we want to make it easier for people to work flexibly. Normalising flexible working will help turbocharge opportunities for women, boost employment outside major cities and support a diverse workforce. We have already reconvened the flexible working taskforce, and I am working with ministerial colleagues to champion flexible working practices.

May I ask what research the Government have commissioned into the causes of the inequality of educational attainment that disadvantages children living in coastal communities? If they have not, why not, and will they?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we have commissioned the equality data programme to look specifically at the issue of geographical inequality. We will be announcing the early results of that programme in July, and the Department for Education has already announced an £80 million extension of the opportunity areas programme, including helping coastal towns.

Disabled people account for two thirds of deaths from covid, and recent research by the BBC showed that 78% of disabled people said that their mental health had got worse during the pandemic and 72% said that their disability had deteriorated. This Government’s failure to comply with their public sector equality duty and undertake equality impact assessments has cost disabled lives. Does the Minister acknowledge the extent of those failures? When will her Government finally bring forward the delayed national strategy for disabled people, and will they finally treat disabled people with dignity and respect and tackle those fatal inequalities?

I will get the Disability Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to write to the hon. Lady with a specific answer to her specific questions, but I can assure her that yes, when the consultation is responded to, it will be in full detail and will address the points that she raised.

A third of people who use social care are working-aged disabled adults, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission recently recommended that the Government enshrine in law article 19 of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, to support them to live independently. It has now been over 700 days since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised that he would fix social care, yet there are still no plans, so what steps is the Minister taking with her colleagues to guarantee that the long-overdue plans for social care will adequately support disabled people to live independently, as recommended by the EHRC?

Nine in 10 school-aged girls are being subjected to indecent exposure on their phones, iPads and computers, but they are told that that is not a crime. Often, the picture is of male genitalia. When will the Government make the non-consensual taking, making and sharing of all intimate sexual images a crime for adults and children? Surely, we do not need yet more review before action is taken. (902487)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. As part of its review of harmful online communications, the Law Commission is considering offences around the sharing of intimate images, including things like cyber-flashing, which she mentioned, and is looking to identify whether there are any gaps in existing legislation. It will publish the results of the review very shortly, and we will consider them all very carefully.

After I was told by a local school student of her experience of sexual harassment working in a restaurant, and of the power imbalance that made it difficult to raise that harassment with her employer, I have worked with the Sheffield Star, the business improvement district, the chamber of commerce, the council, the police and others on a campaign to “Know The Line” for zero tolerance of sexual harassment in the hospitality sector. Will the Secretary of State back our campaign, and will she say when the Government will finally respond to the results of the 2019 consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace? (902490)

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his campaign, and I can assure him that we will be bringing forward our response very shortly.

During the Batley by-election, Labour circulated a leaflet saying: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side”, featuring a picture of the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi of India. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that as divisive, and designed to stoke up anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiment? (902488)

First, I want to welcome the new hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and commend her for her dignity in standing up to intimidation during the campaign. I do agree with my right hon. Friend about the very divisive nature of the leaflet that she talks about. Politicians should not be stoking division: instead, we should be working together to unite and level up our country.

Relative to the average working wage, the UK state pension is the worst in Europe. We have had the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women scandal, where the Government did not do anything, and now they are going to take £1.2 billion from the mineworkers’ pension scheme. This Government do not solve inequality; they add inequality, do they not? (902501)

I wholeheartedly reject the comment by the hon. Gentleman. The state pension has gone up dramatically under the triple lock—by £2,000 since 2010 —by the coalition and Conservative Governments. We have a system that is taking forward real change and making a real difference to state pensioners.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on