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Women and Equalities

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2021

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Rape and Sexual Violence in Conflict

1. What steps the Government are taking to protect women and girls around the world from the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict. (904378)

It is grotesque that sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war. It is wrong that it is treated less seriously than chemical warfare or landmines. That is why we are working to build a new consensus with friends and allies across the world to condemn it as a red line.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that having women themselves around the policy-making table is crucial for entrenching change? What will she be doing to support more women into those sorts of roles in countries where sexual violence is a reality for so many?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are restoring the development budget for women and girls back to its previous levels, and will shortly be allocating funding for such projects. She is right that we need to ensure that we are using all the talents available on parliamentary benches around the world, and I am delighted that we now have a record number of female Conservative MPs in this House.

Women in the Workplace

To help, support and protect women in the workplace, we intend to build on existing legislation by extending redundancy protections for women after they return from maternity leave, introducing neonatal leave and pay, and introducing one week of unpaid carer’s leave. We are currently consulting on measures to increase the availability and uptake of flexible working.

Earlier this month, I met Kate Seary and Mhairi Maclennan, the co-founders of Kyniska Advocacy, which they set up to campaign for zero tolerance of abuse of women in sport. The growing and welcome professionalisation of women’s sport means that this is no longer just a sporting issue, but an issue of fairness and dignity at work. Does the Minister agree that sports governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for female athletes, and what action are he and the Government Equalities Office taking to ensure that the governing bodies are meeting these responsibilities?

The Sport Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston)—is doing a lot of work to ensure that women in sport, and other people, are not getting abuse in their workplace.

Last week I met Stuart and Daphne Anderson at Farnless bison farm in Sedgefield. They are concerned that the rules of succession for tenancy unfairly discriminate against women, affecting their ability to work in the farming industry. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue and ensure that he is clear about those concerns?

My colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are looking at this issue. I will ensure that they hear my hon. Friend’s question and request for a meeting; I am sure that a Minister will be happy to meet him.

As the Minister knows, pay inequality is an intersectional issue—cutting across gender, ethnicity and disability. The Scottish Government are committed to requiring listed public authorities to extend gender pay gap reporting to disability and ethnicity pay reporting, and ensure that these are included in equal pay statements. They will also be required to develop an ethnicity pay strategy, alongside their existing strategies on closing the disability and gender pay gaps. Will the UK Government consider following suit?

So much work has been done on the gender pay gap, as the hon. Lady says, but we are certainly looking at it, and we will report back on what we are doing about ethnicity pay reporting and disability pay reporting.

Diversity and Freedom of Belief: Public Institutions

3. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on diversity and freedom of belief in public institutions. (904382)

I regularly discuss these important issues with other Ministers, as does the Minister for Women and Equalities. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society, and no one should be silenced for expressing their legitimately held opinions. Freedom of speech in universities is already protected by law, but there is no effective enforcement mechanism. The Government are therefore taking steps, in line with our manifesto, to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England.

My hon. Friend may be aware that John Cleese recently felt that he needed to pull out of speaking to the Cambridge Union following the revelation that it had blacklisted certain people from speaking. Although the union’s president has now rowed back on the claim that a list of banned speakers exists, will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to promote freedom of speech and belief in our universities to make sure that students are exposed to a range of views even though they may themselves disagree with them?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, John Cleese was quite right to highlight this issue. However, it should not be up to comedians to educate students on core values such as freedom of speech and freedom of belief; the universities themselves should do that. Those that seek to bully, harass and intimidate others because of their views risk undermining our precious freedoms. Such behaviour should not and will not be tolerated on university campuses. That is why we have introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities and ensure that individuals can seek redress.

Across the United Kingdom, women in public institutions are being hounded for the belief that sex matters in life as well as in law. I have in mind the case of Professor Kathleen Stock at Sussex University, but there are many other women suffering the same fate who do not have such a high public profile. What support can the Minister offer to such women?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for bringing that question to me. She is absolutely right. I have been appalled by the disgraceful treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock. I think that we, as a Government, should do more, and I am personally looking into what we can do in terms of workplace harassment and bullying, which a lot of that behaviour falls under. I hope that I will be able to work with the hon. and learned Lady on this issue more closely.

Health and Care System: Women’s Experience

4. If she will take steps with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to improve understanding of women’s experience of health and the health and care system. (904383)

Improving our understanding of women’s experience of health and the health service is a key priority for this Government. That is why in March this year we launched a call for evidence asking women to tell us about their experience. We had nearly 100,000 responses, which we are working through now and which will form the baseline of England’s first-ever women’s health strategy.

Yesterday this House passed a UK-wide ban on virginity testing through the Health and Care Bill, but banning virginity testing will only work if hymenoplasty is banned alongside it. Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that the Government introduce amendments in another place to ban hymenoplasty and then encourage other countries around the world to stop these practices worldwide?

I am sure that all Members across this House will welcome the Government’s amendment yesterday to ban virginity testing. The evidence for a ban on hymenoplasty is mixed, so the Government have convened an independent expert panel to review all the evidence and look carefully at the issues, and that will report back to Ministers before Christmas.

It is HIV Testing Week in Wales, and yesterday I joined the Terrence Higgins Trust at Fast Track Cardiff and Vale to do my own free home testing kit. In Wales, everybody can get access to a free HIV test at home through Frisky Wales, but in some areas of England free home testing is not available to everyone. Will the Minister work with her Cabinet colleagues to follow where Wales leads and ensure that everyone in England can get access to a free HIV test kit if they wish to?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. Free testing is available across the NHS in England, and same-day test results are often possible. I will look at the specific issue of home testing kits, because it is important that everyone who needs a test has access to it.

One of the times that women most engage with healthcare services is when they are pregnant. My constituent Michelle, a qualified midwife, has contacted me, talking specifically about the importance of retention in midwifery and highlighting the crisis that she says there is. What is my hon. Friend doing to make sure that qualified, experienced midwives stay working at the frontline where we need them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Maternity care is a top priority for the Government, and earlier this year NHS England announced a £95 million recurrent funding package to support the recruitment of 1,200 midwives and 100 consultant obstetricians. Maintaining both the skill mix and the numbers is key to retaining experienced midwives, who often have to take the pressure when there are staff shortages.


5. What steps she plans to take with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to tackle Islamophobia in sport. (904384)

I am sure the whole House has been appalled by recent reports of racism in cricket, a sad reminder that racial discrimination still exists within sport. There can be no place for it. Sports bodies must take robust action to tackle this behaviour. The Government and our sports councils are committed to ensuring that sport is inclusive for everyone, and will be watching; where action does not go far enough, the Government are prepared to step in.

It seems to me that we have an opportunity here to tackle hate crimes by raising them to the status of aggravated offences. Clearly, training and resources would have to follow that decision, but, while we can all say the right things and be quite correct in what we say about absolutely opposing Islamophobia and antisemitism, unless we do something concrete, we may have this problem for a lot longer than we think.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right: we must ensure that laws are constantly updated and reviewed. That goes for the offline world, but also the online one; I am sure he will be aware of the work we are doing, with cross-party support, on online safety to tackle the important issues he raises.

Ethnicity Pay Gap

We are considering the range of views and experiences outlined in responses to the ethnicity pay reporting consultation, further soundings from employers and the conclusions of the independent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and we will respond formally in due course.

Unlike the gender pay gap, there is no legal requirement for companies in the UK to publish their ethnicity pay gap. Research from the TUC has shown that black workers earn 12.8% less on average than their white counterparts, and the gap widens to almost one quarter less when comparing workers with degrees. The Labour party, the TUC, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the CBI are all calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. Can the Minister tell the House when the Government will follow suit and rectify this harmful practice?

As I said, we will respond in due course. In the meantime, voluntary reporting by employers exists and we have seen it increase over the past three years. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck, and that is what we are working through with consultation across the board.

Public Sexual Harassment: Legislation

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on gaps in existing legislation on public sexual harassment. (904386)

Public sexual harassment is appalling, and we are committed to tackling it. As set out in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, we are looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing laws and how a specific offence could address those, while also engaging closely with campaigners.

Some 66% of young women and girls experience public sexual harassment, which has a huge impact on their confidence, their self-esteem and their mental health. It makes them feel unsafe and uncomfortable wearing, doing or saying things in public spaces. Therefore, we should make public sexual harassment a specific criminal offence. Will the Minister meet me and campaigners who want to see that happen, and look at a way forward on this serious issue?

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are taking the views of campaigners on board, and I and other Ministers meet with them regularly. As I have said, we are looking at whether there may be some specific legislative gaps, but it will always be a pleasure for me to meet her.

I thank the Minister for her response, but what specific discussions has she had on the recent increase in spikings that has unfortunately affected women and girls in south Wales?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue on behalf of young women and girls in his constituency. Drink spiking and needle spiking are horrific and frightening offences, and we are taking steps, led by the Home Secretary herself, working with Maggie Blyth, the chief of police leading the response to violence against women and girls across police forces, to ramp up our response and tackle them effectively.

The Minister says that spiking is frightening, but it is actually assault and often leads to further violence. The Government must look urgently at improving forensic provision in healthcare so that we can identify the perpetrators and boost public awareness of the risk of that horrific crime. How will she work with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to tackle the threats of spiking?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the prevalence of spiking, which is why the Home Secretary is leading on action, via the Home Office and with other Government colleagues across the board, to ensure that we have an effective response. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) to the specific funding that the Home Office has put into the safety of women at night fund, which provides drink spiking detection kits and specific training for security staff so that women and young girls going out at night into the night-time economy can feel safe to have a good time, as we all want them to.

Conversion Therapy Ban: Faith-based Settings

8. Whether she plans to bring forward legislative proposals to ban sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy that occurs in religious or faith-based settings through prayer healing, faith declarations, religious conversion courses and other non-physical practices. (904387)

There is no place for the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy in our society. Our proposals will ensure that LGBT people can live their lives free from harm, will stop under-18s making irreversible decisions about their future, and will protect freedom of speech and choice.

The national LGBT survey found that 51% of conversion therapy happens in religious settings and Government-commissioned research found that adult victims often undertake religious conversion practices voluntarily, so the Government’s proposal to allow informed consent for conversion therapy will permit that abuse to continue and risks introducing consent defences to other forms of abuse, such as domestic violence. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether a conversion therapy ban will cover non-physical conversion practices in religious settings, including prayer? Will she remove the dangerous consent loophole?

What is important is that we ensure that people are not coerced into conversion therapy, but it is also important to protect freedom of speech, the ability of adults to consent and the freedom to express the teachings of—[Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members asking whether freedom of speech is a good thing. Yes, it is.

Autistic Children: Educational Support

9. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Education to help ensure that autistic children receive appropriate educational support under equalities legislation. (904389)

Education settings are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children, including those with autism, under the Equality Act 2010. The “SEND code of practice” sets out detailed guidance on meeting children’s needs. Through the new autism strategy, published in July, the Government set out our vision to make life fundamentally better for autistic people by 2026, including in education.

A recent report from the National Autistic Society said that a quarter of autistic children can wait more than three years to receive the extra support they need. Does the Minister agree that that is an equalities issue? What conversations will he have in the Department for Education to ensure that schools and councils get the funding that they need to carry out special educational needs and disabilities assessments and make the right provision?

As an Education Minister, of course I want every child to fulfil their potential. I am committed to speaking to and working with children, families, parents, carers and SEND experts, including the National Autistic Society, which I met this week as part of a stakeholder roundtable. I am always happy to listen to the voices of sector leaders and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Topical Questions

I am delighted that Katharine Birbalsingh has begun her new role as the chair of the Social Mobility Commission. By expecting high standards and not indulging in the soft bigotry of low expectations, she produced fantastic results at the Michaela Community School and gave children the best chance in life. We want her to bring that same attitude to the commission and be a loud champion of equality of opportunity by focusing on education, employment and enterprise, levelling up opportunity and unleashing the full potential of our great country.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling disparity in our healthcare, which is particularly important when it comes to maternity care. I ask the Minister to speak to her colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care about Tameside Hospital, where there is a desperate need for capital funding in a new maternity unit and antenatal clinic. The current unit is located in the Charlesworth Building, which was built in 1971 and is poorly insulated, so sensitive clinical equipment often overheats. The capital funding bid badly needs support and I hope that she will work with me on it to deliver better healthcare for the women of High Peak.

Maternity care is a top priority for this Government, and we are making progress. Since 2010, we have seen a 25% reduction in stillbirths and a 29% reduction in neonatal mortality. On the new maternity unit at Tameside, I understand that the Acorn birth centre opened last year and has been well received locally, but I am happy to discuss further improvements with my hon. Friend.

This morning, we learned that domestic abuse-related crimes have doubled in the last five years, but the number of prosecutions has fallen every year in the same period. A few minutes ago, the Foreign Secretary rightly lamented violence against women and girls across the world. When will she get a grip on the catastrophic situation facing many women and girls in our own country?

This Government were the first Government to pass the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to set out for the first time on the statute book protections for women and girls and other victims of domestic abuse. This is a sweeping piece of legislation, and we are working at pace to drive actions to increase prosecutions across the entire criminal justice system, backed up by a significant investment in our courts to address the backlog.

I regret that the Minister does not appear to have seen the figures from this morning. If she had, she would know that her Government’s measures are not working. I thought she would mention additional measures that are required: increasing sentences for stalking and domestic murder; introducing new defences for victims; stopping the social security, family courts and migration systems from failing victims; and making serial abusers subject to special supervision. Labour has called for all of these measures. When will the Conservatives enact them?

I can tell the hon. Lady that the Conservatives are already enacting the vast majority of that long list she has just recited. As I said, we are the first Government to put domestic abuse legislation on the statute book. I would invite her to attend Home Office questions and address the Home Secretary directly to hear about the vast amount we are doing to protect women and girls in this country, which is a personal priority of the Prime Minister.

T3. Does the Minister agree that improving trust in and legitimacy of key public officials and institutions in areas such as law enforcement, immigration and health, particularly in communities where historically they have been low, is absolutely essential, and what steps does she intend to take to level up in this vital area? (904372)

Building trust between different communities and the institutions that serve them was a central theme of the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. We will respond to the report shortly, setting out our plans for building back fairer, and I can assure my hon. Friend that his concerns will be at the heart of our response.

T2. Between March and June this year, self-harm for women in prison grew by a staggering 47%. Is the Minister aware that the best health outcome for women with children is not incarceration in prison, but a sentence in the community? Can the Minister say how she is pursuing this with the Secretary of State for Justice? (904371)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that very important point. I do not have the Ministry of Justice figures to hand, but what I can do is get one of my colleagues in that Department to write to her with a more specific and comprehensive answer to her question.

Does the Minister agree that it is time to better protect women from abuse and harassment, and the vehicle to do this is the Online Safety Bill?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. No one should feel afraid to participate in our democracy. Intimidation in public life can stop talented people, such as my hon. Friend, and those from minority backgrounds from standing for public office.

T4. When it comes to inequalities, young carers very often lose out. Can I invite Ministers to come and look at a wonderful organisation in Wick called KLICS, which really is delivering a service that means a huge amount to young people? (904373)

T5. Dame Laura Cox recently argued:“The macho behaviour and posturing so frequently displayed in our political debates have disproportionately and adversely affected women in public life.” She added that not just politicians but“women journalists, academics, campaigners and political activists have all reported instances of intimidation, abuse and even physical violence.”What does the Minister believe that we can do collectively to change this culture? (904374)

The hon. Lady is right: we do need to deal with the culture in our politics, and we need to make sure that we have rational, reasonable debates. I think we are demonstrating that today.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on [Interruption.] I do not think we need any more interruptions. If Members listen to this next bit, it might help.

I wish to make one further point. There were many reflections on Sir David Amess’s decency and kindness at the very moving requiem mass held yesterday. I sincerely hope that those qualities of kindness and decency are reflected in our proceedings today and in the future.