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Women and Equalities

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2022

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Regional Inequality

The Government’s central mission is to level up the UK by spreading opportunity more equally across the country. In February we published our levelling up White Paper, which provides a clear plan to level up every corner of the UK. It will address regional disparities across the country, put more money in the pockets of those who need it the most, and transform our economy by generating higher paid jobs and new investment.

Regional inequalities exist even within large counties such as Devon, so what is my hon. Friend doing to tackle those disparities? For example, Ilfracombe in my constituency has the lowest life expectancy in Devon—10 years lower than Kingskerswell, which has the highest. Child poverty in Heavitree, Exeter, stands at 8.1% compared with 20.3% in Ilfracombe West.

Ilfracombe has been awarded more than £3 million to deliver a marine leisure centre at Larkstone cove, which will provide community facilities for local clubs and groups. More broadly, North Devon has been awarded £9.8 million of levelling-up funding to date. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the UK shared prosperity fund will also support our ambitions on levelling up, and that will provide £2.6 billion of new funding for local investment by March 2025.

In places such as the east midlands, we sometimes feel that we fare slightly less well than other areas. Can my hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to make sure that levelling up is genuinely driven by data and evidence?

My officials are delivering the equality data programme, which is examining how access to opportunity is affected by a range of factors, including geography and socioeconomic background. For example, an employee in Wales, Northern Ireland or the north-east of England earns more than £3 less every hour than a similar employee in London, and this geographic pay gap exists even when the cost of living is accounted for. Data from this programme will support our levelling-up agenda, and we encourage Departments to take focused, evidence-based action on those findings.

I welcome the Government’s move to improve access to cash in the Queen’s Speech. It is an issue that affects regional imbalance, as, sadly, more rural banks close. Will the Minister act to ensure that cash is more accepted more widely after the pandemic, as it is still the preferred option for many older people and, more importantly in my constituency and I am sure in others, for carers who are spending their clients’ cash?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We do understand how difficult the trend away from cash and towards cards and digital payments can be. I have seen that in my own constituency with repeated closures of rural bank branches, which force vulnerable customers into more difficult situations, so I thank him for raising it. The ability to transact cash remains important to millions of people. We cannot force the rural branches to remain open, but we will legislate to protect access to cash. The Government plan to introduce legislation in the Financial Services and Markets Bill to support the continued use of cash in people’s daily lives, but he will be pleased to know that it will also help local businesses to continue accepting cash by ensuring access to deposit facilities.

My constituents will have listened with bewilderment to the Minister’s replies to other Members. This Government have been in office for 12 years now. She talks about tackling regional inequalities. Over those 12 years, child poverty has increased, pensioner poverty has increased, the gap between the richest and the poorest has increased, and life expectancy has stalled and in some areas gone backwards. Which of those achievements is she most proud of?

I am proud of this Government’s achievements. The hon. Gentleman has been very selective in picking data that requires a different baseline of years. I am afraid to say that he is wrong. We have been levelling up the country, and, as we announced in the levelling up White Paper, the Government will continue to do so—for example using the £1.4 billion global Britain investment fund to attract major investments, such as the new £2 billion Britishvolt gigafactory in Northumberland. We are doing a lot across the country to level up and we will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister very much for her responses. When it comes to regional inequality in Northern Ireland, I have some concerns over the geographic pay gap to which she referred. In discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, what specifically can be done to ensure that the wages that ladies get here on the mainland are reflected in the wages offered to those in Northern Ireland?

Yes, it is disappointing to see those figures. They do in fact take into account the cost of living. When the data programme is finished, we expect that proposals will be put forward to address those specific issues. I would be very keen for the hon. Gentleman to provide any particular insight that he has from his own constituency, because we do need MPs to bring their regional knowledge into the policymaking agenda.

Levelling Up

Our levelling up White Paper calls time on the postcode lottery and sets out far-reaching action to break the link between geography and destiny. To support that, we are delivering the equality data programme, which is our biggest and best analysis of the barriers that people face.

One of the biggest problems in rural communities such as Broadland is low expectations, both academically and economically. Can my right hon. Friend explain what she is doing to take on that soft bigotry and ensure that people have an equal opportunity to succeed wherever they live, particularly in rural communities?

We have appointed Katharine Birbalsingh as chair of the Social Mobility Commission. She has taken on the soft bigotry of low expectations at her fantastic school, the Michaela Community School in Brent. We want her to help the whole country, including rural areas and places such as Broadland. Tomorrow, she will lay out her vision in a speech at Policy Exchange entitled “Bucking the trend: a fresh approach to social mobility”.

Does the Minister agree that her Government have levelled women down, with women’s real wages now £226 less per year than when Labour left office?

I do not agree with that at all. We are entirely focused on tackling the causes of the gender pay gap by making it easier for people to afford childcare, normalising flexible working and helping women to get into the top jobs, particularly in areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics where they can earn more money.

The Women’s Budget Group has pointed out that women are being hit the hardest by this Tory cost of living crisis, and research from the Resolution Foundation has highlighted that the UK Government’s welfare reforms will push 500,000 children into poverty. The reality is that the UK Government are pushing communities down, not levelling them up. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to follow the example of the Scottish Government and provide families with the support they need to get through the Tory cost of living crisis?

What we are doing is helping more women to get into higher-paid jobs and set up enterprises. We have just set up the taskforce on women-led high-growth enterprises, led by Anne Boden, the chief executive of Starling Bank. We want to help women by giving them opportunities, including to set up new businesses.


This Government take very seriously the challenges women face in getting a diagnosis of endometriosis and in living with the symptoms. That is why it will be a priority area in the women’s health strategy.

My constituent Claire Ciano suffers from endometriosis. It has had a hugely detrimental effect on her career, thanks to the difficulty in getting diagnosed and the lack of treatment available. I commend the Minister on putting forward the women’s health strategy, but will she set out in further detail the steps she will take to raise awareness and improve treatment for sufferers of endometriosis?

The case of my hon. Friend’s constituent is unfortunately only too common. We know the average wait time for a diagnosis is around eight years. Unfortunately, while the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s published guidelines suggest how women should be diagnosed and the treatment they should receive, they are not mandatory. However, in the women’s health strategy we will strongly urge that they be followed.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. One of the biggest issues for women suffering from endometriosis is the lack of access to fertility treatment. She will know that I have been campaigning heavily for better access to, and regulation of, in vitro fertilisation treatment. Can she confirm that that will be a key priority in the women’s health strategy, and when can we expect an update to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which is woefully out of date?

The hon. Lady has campaigned very hard on IVF. I can say that IVF will be in the women’s health strategy; IVF services are commissioned at a local level, but there is disparity in how they are commissioned in local areas, and we want to see consistency of service offered to women and partners.

Endometriosis South Coast does brilliant work supporting women suffering from endometriosis, but it is seeking reassurance from the Minister that, when the women’s health ambassador is appointed, she will be a real champion for those affected by this condition and other women-only conditions that are so impactful on their to continue work. Can the Minister update the House on when the women’s health ambassador will be announced, given that we have been expecting the post since December?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the women’s health ambassador will be key in driving change, not just by raising awareness and confidence among women in coming forward for help, but by improving the services women receive, and she will have to wait only days, rather than weeks, before we release the name.

Women’s Health Strategy

As I have said in answer to previous questions, the women’s health strategy will be forthcoming. We have had over 100,000 responses to our call for evidence. We published the vision document in December, and the full strategy will be published shortly.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has just released figures to show that gynaecology waiting lists have soared by over 60% to half a million people—a bigger proportion than in any other area of medicine. What are the Government going to do to sort this out and get waiting lists down so that women get the healthcare they need?

It is true that the backlog caused by covid is having an impact on gynae procedures. The roll-out of our community diagnostic centres will help significantly with that because GPs will be able to refer women straight to them, and they will be able to get some of their gynae procedures done there without having to have secondary care referrals. We hope that will make an improvement for women.

To be clear, the backlog is not caused just by covid. Figures published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists shows that the number of women waiting over 12 months for healthcare in England ballooned from 66 women two years ago to 25,000 women today. They include a constituent of mine who recently wrote to me stating that the earliest available gynaecological appointment offered to her was in October 2023—over a year from now. Given that the Government’s long-delayed women’s health strategy still does not exist, what action will the Minister take now to reduce these unacceptable waiting times? After all, this week is meant to be the Government’s Health Week.

I think the hon. Lady has answered her own question. She says that cases have risen in the past two years; that is precisely because of the pandemic. If we were under a Labour Government we would still be in lockdown.

Women in STEM Apprenticeships

6. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase the number of women in STEM apprenticeships. (900372)

We are supporting more women to access traditionally male-dominated fields such as STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and those that offer the highest wage returns. Our apprenticeship diversity champion network is championing gender representation among employers and industries where improvement is needed, and we are promoting STEM apprenticeships to girls in schools.

Providing opportunities in STEM for women is essential, as is showing that there are already women in these roles doing the jobs that they aspire to. I would like to praise two local businesses that have worked tirelessly on this: BAE Systems in Barrow, responsible for our submarine programme, which has increased female participation in its early years programme from 19% to 32% in just five years; and Oxley Developments in Ulverston, which has a 50% female workforce. Clearly there is something going right in this cluster in south Cumbria. With that in mind, could I invite my right hon. Friend to come and visit?

I would be delighted to take up the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and hear more about the work that his local businesses are doing to enhance the opportunities of young people.

The Minister for Women and Equalities has just lauded her Government’s social mobility tsar. Does the Minister for Higher and Further Education agree with that tsar that

“physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy…There’s a lot of hard maths in there”?

If not, will she condemn those remarks and others that put girls and women off careers in STEM because of, to use the words of the Minister for Women and Equalities, the

“soft bigotry of low expectations”?

Conservative Members believe in free speech and the right to have a view, but of course we want all people to aspire to go into their chosen careers, including in STEM.

Children with Autism: Classroom Support

7. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Education to improve classroom support for children with autism. (900373)

The SEND—special educational needs and disabilities—and alternative provision Green Paper aims to create a more inclusive education system to improve outcomes for children and young people with SEND. We are providing nearly £12 million to help the schools and further education workforce to support children with SEND, including autism, ensuring that their needs are met early and effectively.

After a decade of per-pupil funding cuts and with staff workloads soaring, mainstream schools are too often unable to provide places for children with special educational needs and disabilities, including children in my constituency who are unable to access speech and language therapy sessions. Does the Minister think that is acceptable, and what is she going to do about it?

This Government are investing £74 million in the first year alone of our autism strategy to promote a straightforward route to diagnosis and the correct support, and we will shortly be detailing our implementation plan for year two. The Department has been funding the Autism Education Trust since 2011.

Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting

9. If she will make an assessment of the potential merits of mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. (900376)

In “Inclusive Britain”, our response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, we accepted the recommendation to publish guidance for employers to support a voluntary approach to ethnicity pay reporting. Work on this is already under way.

According to the Resolution Foundation, in 2018 the ethnicity pay gap cost black workers over £3.2 billion in the loss of wages. Following the pandemic, the gap is getting wider. As the Minister will know, the Women and Equalities Committee said in February that businesses

“are ready for Ministers to follow through”

on the Government’s manifesto commitment to bring in ethnicity pay gap reporting. Can the Minister therefore explain what the hold-up is, and when the Government will do that?

We remain committed to supporting businesses with pay reporting. There are significant technical challenges to it, and it may not be the most effective intervention for some employers in some areas, but we are working on guidance to make sure it can be as effective as possible.

Menopausal Women in the Prison Estate

10. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on access to support and treatment for menopausal women in the prison estate. (900377)

I can reassure the hon. Lady that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is working with NHS England to improve the treatment and support available to women in the prison service, including menopausal women, as part of the national women’s prison health and social care review.

The latest figures show that 39% of female prisoners are over 40, and a further 38% are aged between 30 and 39. Many of them will either be menopausal or perimenopausal already, or reach that stage during their sentence. As we know that menopause can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, including influencing behaviours, does the Minister agree that a menopause strategy within Her Majesty’s prisons would be both productive and beneficial?

I thank the co-chair of the menopause taskforce. We discussed this in our taskforce meeting yesterday, and we have agreed to invite Ministers from the Justice team to work on this issue. The Secretary of State for Justice is sitting beside me, and I am sure he has heard the hon. Lady’s words.

Sign Language

11. What steps the Government are taking to improve public knowledge and awareness of sign language. (900378)

The Government were delighted to support the private Member’s Bill to recognise British Sign Language as a language of Great Britain. We will improve public knowledge and awareness of BSL, including through guidance that will help to promote and facilitate the use of the language, and much more.

I welcome the introduction of the British Sign Language Act 2022, recognising BSL as an official language in England, Scotland and Wales. However, families in Blyth Valley still feel discriminated against in such areas as free sign language classes and educational opportunities for deaf children in schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still much more to be done to improve the lives of people in our communities?

We are passionate about improving opportunities for deaf people who use BSL and increasing general public understanding of deaf people’s language and culture. Linguistic exclusion is a problem and can affect education, jobs and more.

Topical Questions

I commend the women’s organisations, such as Women’s Aid, that have come out in recent months to support single-sex services for women who have suffered violence and abuse. Service providers know that single-sex spaces are crucial to recovery from abuse and violence for many women and children. The Equality Act 2010 recognises this and allows for the restriction of single-sex spaces on the basis of biological sex. The law is clear, it is on their side and we will defend it.

Reducing inequalities is about much more than protected characteristics. Outcomes for education, health and prosperity in Blackpool are among the lowest in the entire country, and they are particularly poor for men. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that those who live in Blackpool can enjoy exactly the same life chances as those who live in more prosperous areas?

In March, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced that Blackpool would be a transformational regeneration place, which means that the Government will partner with Blackpool to address social inequalities, improve productivity and deliver co-ordinated cross-Government support for local priorities. We have already announced measures to support that, including cracking down on rogue landlords and Homes England partnering with Blackpool Council to find exciting new opportunities for regeneration.

T2. According to an equalities assessment undertaken by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the UK Government were aware that women and girls were more likely to be harmed by cuts to the UK foreign aid budget. The Tories’ recent international development strategy lists their new approach as being framed around education, empowerment and ending violence against women and girls, but it does not detail any explicit funding commitments for that. What discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the FCDO about the impact of the aid cuts on women and girls? (900360)

I was very clear in my appearance at the International Development Committee that we are restoring the budget for women and girls for development, including providing 12 years of education for all girls.

T4. Last week, I held a reception in Parliament to launch the first female-only veterans charity in the UK, Salute Her UK. Although there are more than 1,800 veterans charities, this is the only one run by women for women. We know that female veterans have specific needs, so what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to better support female veterans? (900362)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her championing of female veterans. She is absolutely right that we need to deliver services to female veterans that meet their needs and honour their fantastic contribution to the armed forces. That is why the Office for Veterans’ Affairs will commission new research to understand why female veterans need support and the barriers they face.

T3. Last year, the Ministry of Defence pledged to develop a strategy on rape and serious sexual assault, which is long overdue. What conversations is the Minister having with colleagues in the MOD about the strategy and the wider treatment of women in our armed forces? (900361)

We are working very closely on this issue. It is vital that female service personnel are treated fairly and with respect.

One of the most unequal workplaces in the land is the other place, where an eighth of the seats are reserved for men only. Will the Minister support a rapid change in the law, so that hereditary peerages go down through the first and oldest child, as the Crown does, rather than the oldest son?

My hon. Friend is referring to the reform of succession to the hereditary peerage, to which I am sympathetic, but which raises a variety of complex issues. Various approaches have been proposed in both Houses to address the issue of male primogeniture for hereditary peerages, but there is not yet a consensus on the way forward. I am happy to work with her to look at the issue.

T5. This week is Carers Week, and I hope the Minister will agree that unpaid carers make an invaluable contribution to our society but are often unseen. Will she commit to making being an unpaid carer a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, as Carers UK has called for? (900363)

I cannot give that commitment, but I look forward to joining the hon. Lady and others at the reception this afternoon with Carers UK, because there are many important issues regarding how we can support unpaid carers.

T6. The cost of a full-time nursery place for children under two has risen by 16% in the past five years, and for the first time in decades, the number of women leaving the workforce has increased. Does the Minister for Women and Equalities think that this Government’s failed approach to childcare, which is pricing some women out of work and others out of parenthood, is remotely acceptable? What recommendations is she making to the Treasury and the Department for Education to sort out the problem? (900364)

We are absolutely determined to bring down the cost of childcare and to fix the regulations that make the costs so high. We will be bringing forward proposals very shortly.

T7. The Government promised that a comprehensive women’s health strategy would be published last year, but we are still waiting. Meanwhile, waiting lists continue to soar. Given that the number of women on waiting lists for gynaecological services is in excess of 570,000—a 60% increase on pre-pandemic levels—is it not time that the Government stopped constantly trying to protect the job of a lame duck Prime Minister and got on with resolving the day-to-day issues affecting women in our country? (900365)

As I have said in answer to many questions this morning, the women’s health strategy will be published shortly. We had over 100,000 responses, we published our vision document in December and we will be publishing the women’s health strategy in the coming weeks. [Interruption.]

Order. 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