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Women and Equalities

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 22 September 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Maternal Health: Ethnic Minority Women

2. What steps the Government is taking to improve maternal health outcomes for ethnic minority women. (903588)

We remain committed to understanding and addressing ethnic disparities in maternal mortality rates. A new office for health improvement and disparities will be launched on 1 October, which will make addressing disparities in health outcomes a priority. In January, the then patient safety Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), announced a £500,000 fund for a maternity leadership programme. NHS England recently published its equity and equality guidance, asking all local maternity systems to produce action plans to improve equity in maternal outcomes.

This month, I was lucky enough to meet Fazeela Hanif and her team at the Highfield Centre in Keighley, who recently launched a digital health hub that, among other things, creates a safe place for ethnic minority women to access maternal health and wellbeing provision. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating her and her team? Will she explain what the Government are doing to support places such as the Highfield Centre in Keighley to deliver such services?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the team at the Highfield Centre in Keighley on what sounds like an excellent approach, showing real leadership. The Government are committed to ensuring that women across the country are able to access the support that they need. The NHS long-term plan includes a commitment for a further 24,000 women to be able to access specialist perinatal mental health care by 2023-24, building on the additional 30,000 women accessing those services each year by 2020-21 under existing plans. Specialist care will also be available from preconception to 24 months after birth, which will provide an extra year of support.

After recent statistics showing that women in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are 32% less likely to take up help for post-natal depression, what discussions has the Minister undertaken with her counterparts in the devolved institutions, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly, to ensure that women from ethnic minorities are offered the correct care if needed, to remove the stigma that they may feel they might encounter?

I agree that that is a very important area that should concern us all. We look forward to working with the hon. Member; I will arrange a meeting with the relevant Minister before Christmas.

The Five X More campaign has done incredible work highlighting the disparities in maternal outcomes for women from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Its single biggest ask is that the Government set targets to drive down those disparities. Can my hon. Friend indicate what progress is being made and whether the Government will set those targets, as the campaign calls for?

The Government are clear that there is absolutely no place for inequalities or racism in our society. If anyone experiences that in the NHS’s support or approach, that is obviously something that we are deeply concerned about. The Minister for Women and Equalities has been consulting with senior midwives and clinicians from ethnic minorities to discuss how we can improve the experience for all. Discussing targets and so on will be part of that ongoing process, and I am sure that they will look forward to meeting my right hon. Friend to discuss the matter further as we work towards improving the system for all.

Afghanistan: Women and Girls

3. What assessment the Government has made of the impact of the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan on women and girls in that country. (903590)

All those at risk of persecution in Afghanistan, including religious and ethnic minorities, are eligible to apply to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will welcome up to a total of 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK over a five-year period. The impact of the crisis in Afghanistan on women and girls and on other vulnerable groups, including religious and ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people, is of deep concern and has been discussed frequently by the Cabinet. The Taliban must respect the rights of all minority groups, both now and in the future, and we will hold them to account for their actions.

I agree with the Minister on that. It has been a depressing week in Afghanistan, with primary school students returning to gender-segregated classes, older girls excluded altogether, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs closed down and female employees told not to return to work. How, specifically, can we use our leverage, particularly our financial and economic leverage, to hold the Taliban to account for their promises?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the issues around women and girls—particularly education, an area in which we have done a lot of work over a number of years. It is important that we do all we can to maintain the progress that has been made.

When it comes to what more we can do, the Prime Minister has been very clear that we will judge the regime by its choices and actions rather than by its words, and that any relationship with a future Taliban Government would need to be calibrated according to their respect for fundamental rights for women and girls. Lord Ahmad addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council on 24 August to underscore our commitment to protecting the human rights of all Afghan people.

Since 2001, life chances for women and girls in Afghanistan have been dramatically improved, but with the Taliban’s return, that is obviously under severe threat. What discussions is the Minister having with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that long-term funding is channelled into initiatives that promote and support women and girls in Afghanistan?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. Life expectancy increased from 56 years in 2002 to 64 in 2018, and over the past six years the UK has helped more than 250,000 girls to attend school through the girls’ education challenge fund. As for the question of engagement, the Afghanistan response is obviously taking place across Whitehall, involving many Departments. We have also hosted roundtables with non-governmental organisations in London in order to understand better how we can support the work that they do, and meetings have taken place in both August and September to discuss continued humanitarian access.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), some worrying signs are emerging from Afghanistan of intolerance towards women and girls, and towards other minority groups as well. None the less, the words are warm. Does my hon. Friend not agree that, right now, we must take the Taliban at their word, we must hold their feet to the fire, and we must make sure that they do what they say they are going to do? If they do not, of course we must then take steps against them, but for now, let us work with the diplomatic channels to try and force them to join the rest of the civilised world.

The then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), made a statement to the House on 6 September restating our commitment—particularly in respect of human rights—to

“hold the Taliban and other factions to account for their conduct”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 44.]

On 15 September, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), said in a debate on the Joint Committee that we would take forward our priorities, including human rights,

“at the UN General Assembly…with our international partners.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 1057.]

As I have said, it is very clear to me that any relationship with a future Taliban Government would need to be calibrated according to their respect for the fundamental rights of women and girls.

The Taliban, who banned women from playing all sport during their rule in the 1990s, have indicated that women and girls will face restrictions in playing sport, which has caused the country’s women’s football team to flee to Pakistan. What collaborative discussions has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about setting up special visa categories for at-risk Afghan sportswomen and artists to enable them to settle permanently in the UK?

If the hon. Lady wishes to highlight specific cases, it is probably best for her to raise them with my colleagues in the Home Office, but the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), is sitting on the Front Bench and will have heard what she said. More broadly, it is important that we continue to hold the Taliban to account if they do not respect the rights of all minority groups, now and in the future.

Covid-19: Support for People with Disabilities

4. What steps the Government is taking to support people with disabilities after the covid-19 outbreak. (903591)

In July this year we published the health and disability Green Paper and the national disability strategy, which takes into account the impacts of covid-19 and the impact on disabled people in particular. It also focuses on the issues that affect disabled people in general, which we want to address on an ongoing basis.

A disabled constituent from Bosworth wrote to me about difficulties in travelling within the UK. I wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which wrote back referring to the national strategy for disabled people and a vision of making the UK the most accessible country in Europe by 2025. What work is being done in respect of enabling the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the DCMS jointly to make the UK a place where disabled people can work, travel and play?

I want to reassure my hon. Friend’s constituent and indeed my hon. Friend, who has done so much already for his constituency and the many tourist destinations on his patch, that we are on a mission to make the UK the most accessible tourist destination in the world.

Disabled people, on average, face increased costs of £583 a month. Worryingly, the High Court case against the Government on the lack of a £20 uplift in legacy benefits has been delayed owing to a lack of available judges. The Government’s strategy for disabled people promised better cross-departmental working. What pressure is the Minister putting on the Department for Work and Pensions to publish its commissioned research on the uses of health and disability benefits to ensure that we assess the adequacy of the various benefit rates that apply to disabled people?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we have published the health and disability Green Paper. We have also published a strategy, and we are working across Government to ensure that all these matters are being addressed.

STEM Subjects: Uptake by Girls

We are pleased to see an overall increase in entries for STEM A-levels and GCSEs by girls this year, including a notable 12.7% increase in A-level computing entries. We want to see further progress, and we are funding interventions in STEM subjects such as the gender balance in computing programme to further improve girls’ participation.

One of the biggest barriers to getting students to study STEM subjects is the lack of high quality, qualified teachers in the area, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating organisations such as Burnley College in my constituency, and also BAE Systems, which works across Lancashire and encourages and teaches young people the value of STEM subjects? Will she join me in encouraging more employers to sign up to such schemes, so that we can get more children into STEM?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work that is taking place in his constituency, and I extend my thanks to Burnley College and BAE Systems. We recognise the value that early interactions with employers can have for girls’ ambitions, and the Government continue to lead work to enhance STEM outreach. I should point out that secondary schools are expected to provide pupils with at least one meaningful interaction with employers per year, with a particular emphasis on STEM employers, and we will continue to encourage them to do that.

The Minister must surely know that the more emphasis we can put on stimulating young people at the earliest age, the better. Pre-school and infant school—that is the time to have imagination and to get girls interested in maths and science. Does she agree that we need to make special efforts at that early age?

I agree that these things start at an early age. I learned how to code at the age of seven, and I do not think it is a coincidence that I am an engineer by training today. These things make a difference, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that young people, especially young girls and women, are able to pursue careers in STEM.

It is a delight to address my beloved former colleague on the Treasury Bench. Is she aware of the extraordinary work being done in the new model of technology and engineering in a radical new form of tertiary educational institution in Hereford that blends further education and higher education with a commitment to the enfranchisement, support and development of women in engineering?

I was not aware of the fantastic work that is taking place in Hereford, although I suspect that the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is. I would particularly love to hear more about this, and I would be very happy for my right hon. Friend to write to me and share more about what is taking place there.

Nationality and Borders Bill: LGBTQ+ People

6. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the Nationality and Borders Bill on (a) equality, (b) personal safety and (c) the process of providing identity evidence in the asylum process for LGBTQ+ people. (903593)

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is part of our new plan for immigration, seeks to build a fair but firm asylum and legal migration system. On 16 September, we published an equality impact assessment for the policies being taken forward through the Bill. This includes an assessment of the potential impacts on people who are LGBTQ+.

The Nationality and Borders Bill raises the standard of proof for assessing whether someone has grounds to fear persecution to the higher level of balance of probability. If the Minister were an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker, how would they prove, on the balance of probability, that they were, and how would they go about finding proof after a life of trying to hide their identity for fear of persecution?

I am mindful of the point that the hon. Lady makes. She will appreciate the fact that I am new in role in the Department and that I am getting up to speed with the Bill. We began taking evidence in the Bill Committee yesterday, and the line-by-line scrutiny will begin after the recess. I take on board the point that she raises, but what is crucial in taking forward the measures in the Bill is how we operationalise those plans, and I would fully expect that we will be sympathetic in taking proper account of the issue that she raises.

Covid-19: Inequality in Unemployment Rates

7. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on understanding the reasons for the increase in the inequality in the unemployment rate between young black people and young white people during the covid-19 outbreak. (903594)

Understanding why labour market disparities exist between ethnic groups is complex, and work is ongoing across Government to understand better why these disparities exist. In particular, we have a national programme of mentoring circles involving employers who are offering specialised support to unemployed young ethnic minority jobseekers.

I am sure the Minister was as shocked as the rest of us to discover that the increase in young black unemployment was exponentially higher than the increase in young white unemployment at the end of the last quarter of last year, and it has not got better. What specific programmes will he undertake to make sure that we do not see the additional scarring of a generation of young black people aged 16 to 24?

The Government are already acting on this precise point, and in the hon. Lady’s Hackney constituency the jobcentre is working with the council and with local charities as part of the improving outcomes for young black men programme. The focus of that programme is on harnessing successful young black men’s potential and tackling specific inequalities where they exist.

I am the Government’s new trade envoy to Pakistan, so does my hon. Friend agree that greater trade links and investment between our two great countries can only improve jobs and prosperity for all our communities?

Order. That is completely irrelevant to the question, unfortunately. I would love to take it, but it has no link.

Covid-19: Support in the Workplace (Protected Characteristics)

8. What steps the Government are taking to support people with protected characteristics in the workplace during the covid-19 outbreak. (903595)

As the hon. Lady will understand, the vaccine roll-out is key. I was delighted to have my third jab this morning, and I would urge all colleagues to make the case for the vaccine roll-out, which is important for everyone but particularly for those with protected characteristics and those of us who are in the 1% who were shielded throughout the pandemic.

The outbreak of covid-19 posed a risk to all workers, but especially to those with particular disabilities and those who are immunocompromised. The UK Government’s national disability strategy could have made progress in supporting those workers by introducing statutory timescales on reasonable adjustments for employers, but it did not. What priority on the strategy is the Minister communicating to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy? Will representations be made to add timescales for statutory reasonable adjustments?

The Government are working on a number of issues, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the Access to Work programme, which has introduced a more flexible working offer to support disabled people to move into and retain employment, including with homeworking support and mental health support. Of course, the kickstart scheme also has more than £2 billion of funding.

Baroness Lawrence’s report, “An Avoidable Crisis”, found that the Government’s failure to ensure workplaces are covid secure had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and ethnic minority workers. They are more likely to be trapped in low-paid, precarious work, more likely to be overlooked in decisions on workplace protections and more likely to be struggling to self-isolate due to the risk of financial loss. Why are the Government still refusing to require employers to report occupational covid infections and to publish their risk assessments to keep these workers safe?

I am sure the hon. Lady will meet the relevant Ministers, but she will be aware of the disability strategy and the Access to Work programme that we have introduced, which has a more flexible working offer for disabled people with the chance for homeworking support and mental health and wellbeing support. There are also 20 black, Asian and minority ethnic mentors working across the country, from Birmingham to Brent and from Glasgow to Manchester, to ensure there is true access.

I thank the Minister, and I hope he will at least attempt to answer my second question. People with protected characteristics have taken a disproportionate hit to their workplace income during the pandemic. Ethnicity pay reporting is a vital tool to address that. Three years have passed since the McGregor-Smith report recommended it, yet two days ago a Minister said that the Government still need to work out even what it makes sense to report on. Why are the incomes of black, Asian and ethnic minority people of apparently so little interest to this Government?

I would make two points. First, the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), has reminded me that the Government will be responding to the matter this autumn. Secondly, I was shielded myself. I had my third vaccine this morning. We need to make the case that everybody needs to go out and get their third vaccine or their booster straightaway.

Being online is a critical part of a politician’s work, yet in the past two weeks we have seen such an appalling level of abuse targeted at women and people of race that a Conservative Member has come off social media and an Opposition Member has been unable to go to their own party conference. Will the Minister please set out what we can do to get online companies to take more care on the level of abuse and harassment they tackle online?

Order. It is not related really to the question. Are you sure you can answer it in relation to the question, Minister?

I can, Mr Speaker. This is a very serious matter and it does touch upon the point raised. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and many others deserve the full protection of the police and so many others, in our workplace, out of our workplace, on an ongoing basis. We stand with all of them, regardless of party.

Following the 2008 crash, pregnant women and new mothers were made redundant in their thousands, unfairly selected because they were mothers, in what has been described as “straight up discrimination on an industrial scale”. The Taylor review and the UK Government research both confirmed that such discrimination still exists. So as the furlough scheme ends, pregnant women and new mothers need immediate action on this. Will the Minister press his colleagues to bring forward the much-delayed employment Bill and take immediate action to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer given by the Minister for Care, who represents the Department of Health and Social Care. I also respectfully invite the hon. Lady to meet Ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy specifically to raise the employment status of the women she identifies.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to announce the appointment of LGBT business champion Iain Anderson, who will work with the Government, building the evidence base on how to ensure that LGBT people can be themselves in the workplace. Among his first priorities will be kick-starting a business-led mentor network, including small and medium-sized enterprises, supporting the global LGBT conference and engaging businesses to highlight the economic case for LGBT inclusion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to tackle geographic inequality is by making sure that people can get great jobs and have fulfilling careers wherever they live? Will she join me in backing the east midlands freeport business case, which would create 60,000 jobs across the region?

I do agree with my hon. Friend, and I point out that the Government are doing just that with our plan for jobs, which included £895 million to recruit an additional 13,500 work coaches by March 2021—which we achieved. She raises an important point and we are, of course, glad to support her region and all regions across the country.

Next month, this Government will cut the £20 uplift to universal credit. However, this summer, a staggering seven in 10 UC claimants seeking support from the StepChange Debt Charity were women. StepChange also reported that from October 70% of women receiving UC will see their monthly spending exceed their income. How will the Minister respond to a callous cut that disproportionately impacts women? Better still, will she support cancelling the cut altogether?

We have had multiple debates on UC, and we have been at pains to say that this extra £20 was a temporary measure brought in because of covid. We are looking after the public finances, we are doing the right thing by taxpayers and we are doing everything we can to support vulnerable people in this country.

T2. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting my constituents Thomas Gill and his parents, who suffered major injuries as a result of a car being driven by a female driver who was under the influence of drink and drugs. Thomas raised his concern because the sentencing was so low and young women were getting more lenient treatment than young men. Could the Minister assure him that we are equal under the law? (903579)

I was very sorry to learn of the injuries sustained by Thomas, and it is right that this matter is raised by my hon. Friend. I can assure him and the House that equality applies to all aspects of justice—it always has and it always will.

T3. On top of the injustices suffered by 3.8 million WASPI women and the widening gender pensions gap, today’s National Audit Office report finds that the Department for Work and Pensions underpaid 134,000 pensioners, many of whom were women. What steps are the Government taking to tackle the gender pensions gap? Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how we can try to tackle that? (903580)

The Government are doing huge amounts to tackle the gender pensions gap. Automatic enrolment is transforming the situation. Women used to be at 38%; they are now at more than 80% of savings on an ongoing basis.

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 Parliamentlive.tv.