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Women and Equalities

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Conversion Therapy Ban

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging the enormously personal statement that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) made this morning. I hope I speak for the whole House in sending our support. It is so important that people are free to be safe to be themselves, whoever they are and whoever they love.

We remain wholly committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices. We recently concluded a consultation period on the proposals being analysed, based on which we will be developing legislation to be brought forward later this spring.

My best wishes also go to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Minister will be aware that the Cabinet Office recently tendered a contract for the provision of a conversion therapy victim support service. Does he agree that including a consent loophole in the Government’s proposals to ban conversion therapy will allow some of its worst practitioners off the hook, inevitably creating more victims who will need support?

No, we do not agree. We believe that, in a free and open society, consenting adults—provided that there is appropriate advice and information so that people understand exactly what they are doing—should be able to take informed decisions for themselves.

May I echo the words of the Minister in respect of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)? As the Minister rightly said, it has now been two months since the consultation on banning conversion therapy closed and almost three years since the Government made the pledge to ban this insidious practice. Why is it taking so long?

Actually, I secured the first Westminster Hall debate on the subject in 2015. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, if it were easy, Governments would have done it before. We have taken time to analyse the results, and we have had a significant response. It is important that we get this right; that is why we are analysing the significant response and bringing forward the legislation later this spring.

I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his incredible bravery. Can the Minister reassure me, and indeed the whole House, that legislation on conversion therapy will be introduced to this place prior to the conference that is scheduled to be hosted by the Government in the summer? Will he let us know how preparations for the conference are going?

I can give my right hon. Friend the commitment that the Government remain committed to bringing forward the legislation. It is a matter for business managers when the exact parliamentary slot will be, but a Bill team has been stood up and we are progressing at pace.

I very much understand the intentions behind the proposed Bill, but can my hon. Friend tell the House what evidence has come to light of unacceptable conversion therapy practices in the UK, by which I mean practices that are not already illegal, but that the Government think should be banned?

My hon. Friend raises a very fair point. Both the national LGBT survey of over 100,000 LGBT people and the in-depth Coventry report demonstrated that violent and harmful talking conversion practices continue to take place. That is why we need to act.

I would like to add my best wishes to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Scottish Government are clear about the need to act to end conversion practices in Scotland. They have established an expert advisory group to inform their approach to banning this abhorrent practice. The group will include people with personal experience of conversion practice, representatives from LGBTI organisations, faith communities, mental health professionals and academics; it will meet for the first time tomorrow and complete its work by the summer, reflecting the Scottish Government’s recognition of the urgency of the issue. Given that the UK Government’s consultation on their proposed ban ended on 4 February, can the Minister confirm that the UK Government’s approach will be taken forward on a similarly inclusive and urgent basis?

I can certainly confirm that we are taking it forward on an urgent basis. Since I took up the role with responsibility for LGBT+ issues, I have engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders, including those who have been victims of conversion therapy. I have engaged with all the stakeholders, listed by the hon. Lady, from whom the Scottish Government took evidence, from an England and Wales point of view.

People with Down Syndrome

2. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality and freedom from discrimination for people with Down Syndrome. (906378)

The Government are proud to support the Down Syndrome Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). The Bill aims to tackle inequalities and ensure that services and support meet the unique needs of people with Down syndrome.

I welcome the passage of the Down Syndrome Bill through Parliament. Will my hon. Friend commit herself to consulting people living with Down syndrome and other disabilities during the development of the guidance to ensure that their voices are heard?

Absolutely. That is essential. People with Down syndrome and other disabilities, as well as their advocates, will be involved in each phase of the development of the guidance. There will be a national call for evidence, and a formal consultation on the draft guidance on will be available to anyone who wants to share their views. We will provide details of the call for evidence shortly.

I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for posing the question. What steps is the Minister taking, in co-ordination with her counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to promote the appearance on television of our talented Down syndrome actors in order to ensure that programmes such as “Call the Midwife”—one of my favourites—are not one-offs, and that it becomes a normal part of life for children to see someone like themselves on TV and know that they too can fulfil their dreams with hard work and determination?

The passage of the Down Syndrome Bill has given a platform to many people with the condition. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman greatly enjoyed meeting actors, models and many other people with Down syndrome who showed how much they can achieve during the recent parliamentary events, and we look forward to continuing to showcase that.

I, too, want to associate myself with the comments about the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis).

A constituent recently contacted me about her struggle with the cost of living crisis. She is the sole carer of a young daughter and, after 25 years of misdiagnosis, she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is already struggling to make ends meet and now her energy bills are set to triple. Last week’s spring statement included nothing about mental health and barely mentioned disabilities, whereas Labour has a plan to ease the cost of living and provide mental health services for 1 million more people each year. Where is the Government’s plan to help the millions of people like my constituent?

This issue would normally be covered by questions to a different Department, but, as the mental health Minister, I can tell the hon. Lady that we do have a plan. We are making a great deal of investment in mental health and making further investment in the catch-up programme. We also have a mental health strategy on which we have been working this year, and we will ensure that we address the issue of people with bipolar disorder in that strategy.

Social Mobility

The Government believe that the circumstances of a person’s birth should not determine life outcomes. We recently published our levelling up White Paper to address regional disparities across the UK and put more money into the pockets of those who need it most. We are also bolstering the Social Mobility Commission by appointing new commissioners who will help to improve public understanding of how opportunity is created and made accessible to all.

For too long, the focus on social mobility has been about what a person looks like and not what that person can offer. Can the Minister confirm that we will consign that approach to history, and instead focus on what everyday people can offer the country and ensure that they have the opportunity that they deserve?

My hon. Friend is right: social mobility is very much about the individual. He will be pleased to know that the Government are taking a new approach to equality which goes beyond the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 and also takes account of socioeconomic and regional disparities. He will have noticed that we have released our strategy for racial equality, “Inclusive Britain”, which is based on some of the principles to which he has referred.

Social mobility is a laudable aim that everyone in the House agrees with, but this week I was shocked to see Action for Children report that nearly half of children surveyed from low-income backgrounds say that they worry about their families’ finances. That kind of stress will help no child to do well at school and will help no child to succeed. We know that family finances and the ability to work are also constrained by childcare. So can the Minister say what she is doing in her role to work across Government to help on family finances and, in particular, to help parents who need to fund the cost of childcare?

I have another role as Minister for Levelling Up Communities, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities recently invested £300 million in a flagship programme to support the families who need help the most. The hon. Lady will have heard from other Ministers in various Departments what we have been doing about the cost of living, and I refer her to their statements.

Careers in Science, Computing and Engineering

5. What steps she is taking to encourage more women to enter careers in science, computing and engineering. (906381)

We have seen good progress on increasing the number of girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects at school, but we know that too many women drop out of STEM careers because of caring responsibilities. That is why we recently announced a new scheme to help women into STEM roles after taking time out of work to care for their family. This will help organisations to recruit those who are too often overlooked because of a gap on their CV when providing employment support.

Given the obvious labour shortages in construction, can I encourage Ministers to work with groups such as Women into Construction to encourage women to take on apprenticeships and careers in engineering and construction?

My right hon. Friend can consider Ministers suitably encouraged. I speak as an engineer who also had an apprenticeship, and I know how important organisations such as Women into Construction are. We will do everything we can to work with them and to support women into apprenticeships and engineering.

Equality Act 2010: Implementation by Local Authorities

6. What recent representations she has received on the implementation by local authorities of the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. (906382)

The Equality Act’s provisions, including the public sector equality duty, apply to local authorities, and they are legally bound to implement them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, an independent public body, is responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010 across the public sector, including in local authorities. The EHRC makes its own decisions on how it exercises its functions.

I thank the Minister for that response. Women from my constituency and across Fife have had their coffee mornings cancelled by Fife Council officers for reasons that have not been adequately explained. Does the Minister agree that preventing women from lawfully organising and discussing matters of importance under the protected characteristic of sex forms part of an emerging culture of women being cancelled, intimidated and silenced and is deeply harmful? Does she further agree that all public bodies, including police services and local authorities, must observe the clear definition set out by the inner house of the Court of Session on the category of sex in the Equality Act, and that an attack on one protected characteristic should be considered an attack on all protected characteristics, and must be robustly challenged and cease?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I do not think it right that women should be prevented from organising on the basis of their sex. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society and no one should be silenced from expressing their legitimately held opinions. Like any public body in this country, the hon. Gentleman’s local council must have regard to its public sector equality duty in all its functions and decision making, including the case he refers to. He may wish to pick the issue up with the Scottish Government, as they are responsible for education policy of the kind we are discussing. I do not know the particular details of this case, but if he writes to me, I might be able to provide more information.

As the Minister has set out, local authorities have a duty to have regard to equality in all their work, and it is local authorities that facilitate our elections, so would the Minister agree that getting more information about who stands for election published might help us to ensure that our electoral system is as fair and open as it can be?

Yes, I would agree with that. Local authorities carry out the work of providing that information to the electorate, but if there is something specific that my right hon. Friend thinks they could be doing more of, I would be happy to look into that in my capacity as local government Minister.

What urgent conversations is the Minister having with British Cycling to ensure that elite female athletes such as Dame Laura Kenny, a six-time Olympic medallist, and her team-mates will not lose their places and have their records broken because of British Cycling’s inability to uphold section 195 of the 2010 Equality Act and implement the agreed guidance from the Sports Council Equality Group on transgender inclusion in sport, which was published in October last year?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have not had any specific discussions with British Cycling, but I am glad she has raised this issue with me. I will pick up the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who look at sports guidance and see what we can do to provide clarity on the subject.

Investment for Businesses: Female and Minority Entrepreneurs

8. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the barriers faced by female and minority entrepreneurs in seeking investment for businesses. (906384)

The Government’s flagship start-up loans programme, delivered through the British Business Bank, has been instrumental in reducing access-to-finance barriers faced by all entrepreneurs, including those faced by female and minority entrepreneurs. Since the launch of the programme, around 40% of the loans issued, valued at approximately £320 million, went to female entrepreneurs. Black, Asian and ethnic minority businesses have received around 20% of the loans issued, valued at £160 million.

A record 140,000 women started their own business in the last year, but research shows that only 1% of venture capital funding goes to businesses led by women. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and the #overbeingunderfunded campaign, run by my constituents Sarah King and Claire Dunn, to discuss how we can better use Government schemes such as the seed enterprise investment scheme to address this inequality?

The seed enterprise investment scheme is one of three tax-advantaged venture capital schemes that provide tax incentives to individuals who invest in companies at various stages of growth. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to talk about the world-leading generosity of this scheme. I will find out whether a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Treasury is available to meet her and her constituents on this specific issue.

Energy Costs for Disabled People

9. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on energy costs for disabled people. (906385)

The Treasury recently announced £9.1 billion of support for energy customers, including a bill rebate, a council tax reduction and continuing support for the most vulnerable households. Furthermore, a doubling of the household support fund was announced in the spring statement, which is again getting help to where it is needed most.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his bravery in speaking out. We wish him all the best. I think I speak for everyone in the Chamber when I say that we are here to support him.

Disability charities estimate that the number of disabled people in fuel poverty could double this year. A constituent recently told me, “I stay in bed to keep warm and to keep up with my energy costs. I skip meals to cope with my grocery costs.” Will the Government and the Minister support our call to reinstate the £1,000 universal credit uplift and to keep in line—

I assure the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) that I regularly meet many disabled people and disability organisations. I am aware of this issue and the natural anxiety about rising costs felt by many who live on a fixed income. That is why the Government are already acting in the way I set out.

HM Prison and Probation Service: Equality Assessment for Fitness Testing

10. If she will undertake an equalities impact assessment of HM Prison and Probation Service’s equality assessment for fitness testing. (906386)

The HMPPS staff fitness testing policy was reviewed, updated and published in 2021. An equality impact assessment was undertaken in 2021, and it remains a live document. It will be reviewed and updated regularly as work in this area progresses. HMPPS staff networks, diversity and inclusion experts and trade unions were fully consulted during the policy review, and they contributed to the equality analysis.

The Minister will be aware of concerns, particularly from the Prison Officers Association, that far more female officers than male officers are failing this test. Will he meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss this issue?

The hon. Gentleman takes a consistent interest in this point, and I am happy to mention his question to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). I can confirm that, since prison officer fitness testing resumed last July, 90% of female officers passed on the first attempt, and none failed by the third attempt.

Topical Questions

“Inclusive Britain” is the Government’s response to the report by the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and it sets out a groundbreaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. This includes developing a new model history curriculum by 2024; working with a panel of academics and businesspeople to promote fairness in the workplace; and developing a new national framework for how the use of police powers is scrutinised at local level. The measures in the action plan will help to level up the country by tackling the drivers of persistent ethnic disparities in education, employment, health and criminal justice.

The Minister will be aware that a recent survey of 27,000 parents by Pregnant Then Screwed found that about two thirds are paying more for childcare than they are for their rent or mortgage. This is pushing many mothers out of the workforce or into working fewer hours. Does she agree that the Government need to address this as a matter of urgency if we want to keep women in the workforce and in well-paid jobs?

I agree with the hon. Lady that childcare is a very important issue if we want to keep women in the workplace. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlement and we continue to support families with their childcare costs.

T3. I welcome the Down Syndrome Bill and fully support its passage through Parliament. How will the Minister ensure that from the perspective of equality the Bill will not have the unintended consequence of prioritising support for Down’s syndrome over other genetic and chromosome disorders? Some of those, although not as well-known, are thought to be just as prevalent, if not more so, and certainly no less impactful for the families affected, for example, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. [Interruption.] (906393)

Order. I ask Members, please, not to walk in front of other Members while they are asking questions.

The Government are committed to considering the overlaps and linkages of the experiences of people with Down’s syndrome and those of people with other genetic conditions, such as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, in the development of the guidance. The national call for evidence will ensure that the guidance also benefits people with other genetic conditions too.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, may I associate myself with the warm and supportive remarks made from all across this House to the hon. Member for Bridgend?

Women are bearing the brunt of the Conservative cost of living crisis. At the sharp end, as the Women’s Budget Group has said, they are the “shock absorbers” of poverty, cutting essentials for themselves so that their kids do not go without. So will the Minister inform the House as to what assessment her Government have made of the financial impact of the Chancellor’s autumn Budget last year and his spring statement last week?

The Treasury looks at all impacts in the round, and the financial statement the Chancellor announced last week would have had an equalities impact assessment, which would have taken into account all the various measures and their impact, based on protected characteristics.

In practice, it is disappointing that it did not include that analysis and the Minister does not appear aware of the impact of her Government’s policies on women. I can enlighten her: put together, the 2021 autumn Budget and the 2022 spring statement take £28 billion from the pockets of women over the next six years. That is £1,000 for every woman in the country. So why is her Government still refusing to impose a windfall tax to reduce bills for everyone and provide up to £600 for the households who need it, many of them run by women?

I simply do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady is putting forward; it is not right to say that we are taking money out of the pockets of women. We have put forward a spring statement and a financial package that is looking after the interests of everyone in this country, because we look after people irrespective of their sex, gender, race; we look at people based on socioeconomic characteristics in particular and those who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged.

T4. I have been fighting hard to keep body image up the agenda. The Advertising Standards Authority has closed its call for evidence. The Select Committee on Health and Social Care has started an inquiry on this and the online harms Bill has the chance to address body image. That being said, what action has the Minister taken following the Select Committee on Women and Equalities report, “Changing the perfect picture: an inquiry into body image”? (906394)

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued work on this important issue. As we all know, poor body image can affect lifestyle choices, and physical and mental health, and is associated with lower confidence and low aspirations. So we have been taking steps to ensure that young people have the skills to keep themselves safe, through our work on media literacy and promoting understanding that the online environment is not always reflective of reality.

T2.   Hymenoplasty and so-called “virginity testing” are disgraceful forms of abuse against women and girls. I was therefore pleased when the Government committed earlier this year to banning them. Will the Minister update the House on when this legislation will be introduced so that women and girls are protected from these inhumane practices? (906392)

The Government are committed to safeguarding women and girls, which is why on 18 November 2021 we tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to ban virginity testing, which passed unopposed in the House of Commons.

T5. There is no doubt that our first female Prime Minister led the way by showing women that they can reach the highest office and do the job well. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more women to seek elected office? Will the Minister consider a similar accolade to that of the Falkland Islands and celebrate a Margaret Thatcher day? (906395)

I would be very supportive of a Margaret Thatcher day, but I think that is more a question for the Prime Minister than for me. My hon. Friend will know that all parties do quite a lot to support women into elected office and across the House we can agree that that is an important thing to continue.

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