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Women and Equalities

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2022

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths

1. What steps she is taking to increase the number of women and girls (a) studying and (b) employed in STEM subjects and jobs. (905015)

Between 2010 and 2020, under this Conservative Government, the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK has increased by 49%.[Official Report, 25 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 9MC.] We are utterly committed to ensuring that more women and girls study STEM through funding programmes that boost uptake, such as the Inclusion in Schools physics programme.

Would my hon. Friend be able to let me know exactly how many women are taking up STEM apprenticeships? I ask this question specifically because the electric vehicle revolution in the west midlands is leading the way, and I am keen to see women taking up such opportunities so that they can have a long-term career in high-quality, high-paid jobs.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and I look forward to visiting the west midlands to see that with my own eyes, because apprenticeships are exactly the sort of first step on the career path we are looking to provide for our young people. Women now account for more than half of all apprenticeship starts across the country and our apprenticeships diversity champions network is working with employers across the country to make sure we see the improvement we need.

The under-representation of women in STEM is informed by a variety of factors. What assessment have the Government made of how careers in niche areas of STEM such as photonics can be better advertised and incentivised for women?

We are always doing whatever we can to encourage more women and girls to study STEM. I am delighted to say that the number of women on full-time STEM undergraduate courses has gone up by 49% since 2010. The percentage of women on full-time STEM undergraduate courses has gone up from 34% to 42% since 2010, and A-level science entries are up 36% among girls. Girls now account for more than 50% of all science A-level entries, and women now account for over half of all STEM undergraduates. Those are significant increases since the Conservatives came to power in 2020, and I look forward to taking that from strength to strength.

Wockhardt in Wrexham made the AstraZeneca vaccine ready, setting the scene for Wrexham to be at the forefront of opportunities. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to encourage young people, including women, into STEM opportunities, and that Wrexham, with Glyndŵr University and Coleg Cambria, is just the place to do that?

It looks like I shall be going to Wrexham as well. I am delighted to say that, under this Government, women and girls are driving the STEM revolution that is powering the new economy.

Hate Crimes

2. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the Law Commission’s recommendations on hate crimes. (905016)

13. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the Law Commission’s recommendations on hate crimes. (905028)

The Law Commission published its comprehensive review of hate crime laws on 7 December. Recognising the complex issues that the Law Commission has identified, the Government will carefully consider those recommendations and provide a further response as quickly as possible.

Women and girls in Dulwich and West Norwood and across the country are desperate to see action on the sexual harassment they experience daily on our streets and in public spaces. The suggestion from the Prime Minister that these offences should simply be prosecuted under existing laws demonstrates that he is as out of touch with the public mood on this issue as he is on everything else. The Law Commission recommended that the Government undertake a review of the need for a specific offence of public sexual harassment. Will the Minister confirm that the review will be undertaken swiftly, so that new legislation can be brought forward without further delay?

I can reassure the hon. Lady and the whole House that the Prime Minister takes all forms of sexual harassment against women and girls extremely seriously. That is why we are focusing on the Law Commission’s recommendations, which involve a number of complex issues, as she will understand. If there are gaps in the specific laws that tackle this appalling crime, the Government will act.

To follow up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), a kite was flown in The Telegraph saying that the Government were absolutely going to put in place a public sexual harassment law, as has been called for, as has been suggested by the Law Commission and as was talked about in the violence against women and girls strategy that was published six months ago. Now the Minister is standing in front of us and saying, “We are still looking at it.” Was what the Home Office official told The Telegraph right, or is what the Minister is saying right? The Government committed to this law six months ago, so when can we expect it?

I am happy to put on record the official position, regardless of what has or has not been reported in The Telegraph, which unfortunately I have not read. We are responding to the Law Commission’s review as quickly as possible, as I already said to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood.

Our Streets Now, Plan UK and a variety of organisations from Girlguiding to the Soroptimists all agree with the Law Commission that hate crimes would best be prosecuted as a specific law. Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that she will look for a legislative vehicle to make that possible quickly?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue again and for representing the views of many across the country. She should be in no doubt that we take these horrific crimes seriously, and that is why we published the violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out a number of measures to keep women and girls safe. We are working at pace to work through the complex issues identified by our legal friends so that we are in a position to bring forward a response swiftly.

With regard to the wider strategy on tackling hate crime, Home Office statistics show that there are about 124,000 hate crime incidents. Under the category religion, there was a real rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. What will the Government do in their strategy to address those two real issues concerning our society?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for making representations on the important issue of the persecution of religious faiths in this country. The Government take these issues extremely seriously, and that is why we will publish a refreshed hate crime strategy. We are also investing in a number of measures to keep communities safe, wherever they may worship. Freedom of worship in this country is a vital principle that we all believe in.

Transgender Prisoners

3. What the Government’s policy is on placing transgender women with sexual abuse convictions in female prisons. (905017)

Transgender women can be allocated to women’s prisons only following a rigorous risk assessment, with particular consideration given to the type of offence they have committed and the risk that they pose to others. The result is that well over 90% of transgender women in prison are held in the men’s estate, and there have been no assaults or sexual assaults carried out by transgender women in the women’s estate since we strengthened our approach in 2019. Just to emphasise, there is an exemption to the Equality Act 2010 requirement not to discriminate against transgender people in relation to single-sex spaces where doing so is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Prisons can and do rely on that exemption.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the protection of women is of paramount consideration when dealing with the placement of transgender offenders in the prison system? On what basis would a male-born prisoner with a record of sex offences against women who now identifies as a transgender woman be placed in a women-only prison?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Just to be clear, the safety of all prisoners is of fundamental importance to the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and we are particularly aware of the vulnerabilities of many female prisoners. Transgender women who want to move to a women’s prison will be risk-assessed by an expert multidisciplinary panel chaired by a senior prison manager. The panel will consider an individual’s offending history, their anatomy, their behaviour in custody and their use of medication related to gender reassignment, as well as the risk posed to individuals.

Support for Disabled People

4. What assessment she has made of the impact of the autumn Budget and spending review 2021 on support for disabled people. [R] (905018)

Under the 2021 spending review there will be delivery of targeted support for disabled people, including £1.1 billion of investment in helping them to get into work, £2.6 billion of funding for new school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and much more on health and other matters.

In the autumn statement the Government snuck out a £70 million stealth cut to benefits. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the Minister before questions, and I know he is not the Minister responsible, but can he confirm that disabled people will be involved in the process and say how it will affect them? If he cannot, will the Minister responsible write to me?

Yes, the Minister for Disabled People will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I can confirm that we will spend the record sum of £58 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the health and disability Green Paper and the strategy published in the summer of last year, which will be responded to in this House in the summer of this year.

The Conservatives are simply unable to get a grip on the cost of living crisis, and disabled people are paying the price. After failing to act in the Budget, yesterday the Conservatives voted against measures to slash the cost of fuel, which would have disproportionately benefited disabled people, who are more likely to be in fuel poverty. Indeed, the Conservatives seem to have little understanding of the reality of disabled people’s lives. Can anyone on the much enlarged Treasury Bench inform the House what percentage of disabled people currently live in relative poverty?

I will get the Minister for Disabled People to provide the precise stats for the hon. Lady, but I repeat the point that funding for disabled people and people with health conditions is at the record level of £58 billion.

I find it astonishing that no one on the Government Front Bench appears to be aware that 27% of disabled people in our country live in relative poverty—that is up by 1 million more disabled people since 2010. The situation looks set to be exacerbated by the Chancellor’s £70 million stealth cut to disability benefits in the Budget, of which the Minister seemed to be unaware when it was raised a moment ago. Were the rest of the Women and Equalities team consulted about that stealth cut?

The hon. Lady will understand that only the Minister who is asked the particular question can answer. The practical reality is that the spending review has shown that £58 billion is a record sum. It is an increase of nearly £5 billion in real terms since 2010.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy assured me that he has had extensive conversations with the Chancellor about the cost of living crisis that we have just heard about, but what we need is action. Not only have disabled people on benefits lost the £20 a week universal credit uplift, but their benefits are lower in real terms than they were before the pandemic and many face the future with real dread. Disabled people should not bear the brunt of the cost of living crisis, so what discussions has the Minister had with his Treasury colleagues about tackling the toxic blend of Tory cuts, tax hikes, soaring inflation and surging energy bills that is affecting disabled people across the UK?

The hon. Lady will know that there is the household support fund, the winter fuel payments, the cold weather payments and the increase in the state pension by 2.5% for this year and by 3.1% next year, and that there is everything from the energy price cap to the freeze in fuel duty, which all go to assist anybody affected.

Covid-19 Vaccinations

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of steps taken by the Government to increase the uptake of covid-19 vaccinations where uptake is lower among certain ethnic groups. (905019)

The covid disparities report that I published last year summarised the unprecedented measures we have taken to promote vaccine uptake and includes recommendations to improve vaccination rates further for harder-to-reach groups that the Prime Minister has accepted in full. We have worked with faith leaders and other trusted local voices to overcome vaccine hesitancy and provided more than £23 million in funding to support the community champion scheme, which we have just extended to support the booster campaign.

Behind the boasts of jabs in arms that for a while were distracting from the death figures, until we hit 150,000, are the Government not as worried as I am that the Office for National Statistics is finding vaccine hesitancy among the black British population more than five times higher than among the white population? Among the over-50s, just 44% of Caribbeans and 42% of Pakistanis have been boosted, as opposed to 77% of white British. When are the Government going to admit that their “Take me to your leader” model of community relations just is not working?

I have to say—and I really do not say this lightly—that the hon. Lady has form in pretending that the Government are doing absolutely nothing, when we are doing so much to encourage vaccine take-up in ethnic minority communities. She will know that in her own constituency of Ealing Central and Acton we have spent £485,000 on the community champions scheme. The hon. Lady will not stand up and let her constituents know what we are doing to encourage vaccine uptake. Perhaps she should focus on the positive things that the Government have done, including in her own constituency. There would be less vaccine hesitancy if Opposition Members stopped scaremongering.

Women in Enterprise

The Government continue to support women in enterprise by implementing the recommendations of the Rose review. Our start-up loans company has advanced more than 35,000 loans to women since 2012, worth nearly £300 million, and that represents 40% of all loans.

My constituent Kerry Mackay from the Ceiriog valley has overcome hardship and just been named one of the top 100 most inspirational and dynamic female entrepreneurs in the UK for her business ScrubbiesUK, which makes environmentally friendly cleaning pads. Will the Minister congratulate Kerry and look at ways to raise awareness of the business mentoring and training schemes that were pivotal to her success and that of her business?

Kerry Mackay is inspirational and I congratulate her and all her colleagues at ScrubbiesUK. She is an exemplar for small businesses, leading the way to help the UK tackle plastic pollution and reach our climate goals. I am glad to hear that she benefited from Government mentoring support, and I will ask the relevant Business Minister to write to my hon. Friend with more details. In the meantime, I hope that people like Kerry Mackay will raise awareness of this opportunity through their own networks, which is often the most effective way to spread the word.

Covid particularly impacts on women in business, and the sectors in which they are predominant need to be protected by the Government. What more can we do?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the sectors most impacted by covid, such as the arts and hospitality, include a high proportion of women-led businesses. She will be aware of the targeted measures to help these sectors that were announced just last month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, including one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises for the hospitality sector and £30 million through the culture recovery fund. That support will help female entrepreneurs to keep trading through the current difficulties and make the most of future opportunities as they look forward to the end of the pandemic.

Spiking in Nightclubs

7. What progress the Government have made on their response to young women being spiked by injection in nightclubs. (905021)

The abhorrent crimes of spiking also speak to broader issues of violence against women and girls, which is taken extremely seriously by this Government. The Home Secretary has already asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue, and she is receiving regular updates from the police. The hon. Lady will know that we are delivering a pilot £5 million safety of women at night fund, which focuses on preventing violence against women and girls in the night-time economy, keeping them safe in public spaces at night.

Many girls and women are afraid of enjoying a night out or going to a music festival for fear of being spiked, raped and assaulted. What work is the Minister doing with venues such as bars, nightclubs and music festivals to prevent that from happening and to ensure that appropriate safeguarding measures are in place, and what is the assessment of the scale of the problem at those venues?

The hon. Lady raises a really good point. Those in the night-time economy play a key role and are taking their responsibilities seriously. The Government work very closely with them, and we are providing funding and helping them provide training to their staff so that women can feel safe at night. It is vital that the funding we are providing is being used by local authorities to provide, for example, testing kits and taxi marshals to get women home safely at night. Police are also ramping up their forensic capabilities. There is a lot of work going on.

Conversion Therapy

8. If the Government will ensure that proposed legislation to ban conversion therapy will not criminalise therapists and parents for telling children that it is not possible to be born in the wrong body. (905022)

The Government’s proposals will protect freedom of speech. The proposals will not affect a parent’s right to express their views and raise their children with their values. Parents, clinicians and teachers will, of course, continue to be able to have open and challenging conversations with young people or others about their sexual orientation or whether they are transgender or not.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. There have been instances of parents being reported to social services for not simply affirming their child’s new trans identity. Will my hon. Friend assure parents that their right to not simply affirm their child’s new identity will be protected in the face of the ideological capture of some of our public services?

Parents and carers will, of course, have the right to express their views on how a child identifies.

Topical Questions

We are five months away from Safe To Be Me, the UK’s first ever global LGBT rights conference. Everybody should be free to be themselves, but that is not true in too many parts of the world. We will work with friends and allies across the globe to turn the tide on authoritarianism, spread freedom and end the criminalisation, persecution and violence experienced by far too many LGBT people.

Aylesbury has a sizeable Pakistani diaspora. We have seen excellent campaigns locally and nationally to encourage uptake of vaccines among this community, but in the town’s central wards fewer than half of the people have had the booster so far. What steps is my hon. Friend taking across Government to encourage vaccine take-up among ethnic minority groups, especially those who do not have English as their first language?

My Department has been working across Government to promote vaccine uptake among ethnic minorities. We have worked with trusted local voices such as faith leaders to spread messaging, and we publish key information and advice via community TV and radio stations, translated into a range of languages including Urdu and Punjabi. In May, I met the high commissioner for Pakistan to consider other ways we can reach out to diaspora groups to promote vaccine confidence and uptake. I should say that between April and October 2021, the largest increase in vaccine uptake among the over-50s was in the Pakistani and black ethnic groups.

Department for Work and Pensions data show that four in five black people have less than £1,500 in the bank. More worrying is that approximately one in four black British, British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani people have no savings at all. Energy bills are going up, food prices are up and taxes are up. The increased cost of living will hit minority communities hardest. What action will the Minister take to ensure that minority communities are not pushed into greater hardship this winter?

We have put, on average, £1,000 a year more into the pockets of the lowest earners through changes to universal credit, increasing the minimum wage next April to £9.50 an hour, and helping with the cost of fuel bills. Our multibillion plan for jobs, which was recently expanded by £500 million, will help people across the UK to find work and to boost their wages and prospects, and this will disproportionately benefit people in minority ethnic groups.

In May 2020, Professor Sarah Gilbert, with help from the Downing Street team, was working on the AstraZeneca vaccine. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage more women in biomedicine?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about Sarah Gilbert’s achievements. She was part of our Gender Equality Advisory Council, working across the G7 to give women more opportunities and to enable more entrepreneurship, ideas and innovation around the world.

T2. Does the Minister share my concern that many older workers who lose their job find it difficult to get back into work, either because of employer prejudice or because of an artificial requirement for paper qualifications, with no allowance made for capability or experience; and what is she going to do about it? (905008)

The DWP has launched 50Plus Choices, which specifically addresses the issues the right hon. Gentleman raises. I will get the Minister responsible for that matter to write to him.

Outcomes for people in Blackpool in education, health and employment are among the worst in the whole country. I welcome the equality data programme, which is examining how factors such as social background and geography contribute to inequality. How does the Minister expect the programme to reduce the inherent inequalities that have disadvantaged people in Blackpool for decades?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where one lives often has a bigger impact on outcomes than anything else. For example, the wage gap between London and the north-west is, on average, £5.22 an hour. We are examining the drivers of those disparities, and we have appointed Katharine Birbalsingh to lead the Social Mobility Commission and help to propose the policies that will sort this out.

T3. As co- chair of the all-party parliamentary group for black, Asian and minority ethnic business owners, I have been working closely with special adviser Diana Chrouch to identify and address the barriers to accessing finance that BAME entrepreneurs experience. A significant issue is the lack of data collected by banks and other financial institutions on the ethnicity of business owners. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the APPG to discuss how better collection of business owners’ ethnicity data can be driven forward across Government? (905009)

I am keen to hear what the APPG thinks the solutions are to this issue. The hon. Lady will know that collecting ethnicity data is a sensitive issue and it is not something that all people want to do, but I am happy to work with her and the APPG to learn about how we can come to some resolution.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that increasing diversity in the STEM sector is not only good for the individuals who will benefit from well paid, creative and rewarding jobs, but brings a wealth of talent and creativity to an ever more important sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need all the talent in Britain on the pitch, which is why it is so important we get more people into STEM, particularly girls and women.

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