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Women and Equalities

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2022

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Gender Pension Gap

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the gender pension gap. (901075)

The Government are committed to addressing the gender pension gap. Automatic enrolment and the new state pension are already enabling more women to build up retirement provision. Recognising that this issue derives primarily from differences in work and pay, we continue to work across Government with employers and partners to address inequalities relating to the labour market.

My constituents in Swinton regularly tell me that the gender pensions gap is exacerbated as a result of a lack of ambition on the part of the Government regarding auto-enrolment. Will the Minister meet me to hear those concerns from constituents in Swinton, and see how we can change that to ensure we close the gender pensions gap?

I am sure that the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), would be happy to have a further conversation on that. Automatic enrolment is important. It has made progress, but there will be more to do.

Whether it is the menopause, child rearing, or caring for elderly relatives, women are impacted across their careers in the contributions that they make to their pensions. Most of all, they need better work opportunities, and for the DWP to be championing them into better paid work. What work is the Minister doing with the Minister for Employment to ensure that women’s careers are at the forefront of the Government’s efforts?

I will ask my colleague the employment Minister to write to my right hon. Friend to ensure she has a full update, and I touch briefly on an example such as mandatory pay gap reporting, which is helping to drive progress.

Sexual Harassment against Women in the Military

We are doing a huge range of work right across defence, both institutional and cultural, to ensure that sexual harassment is not an issue. We have taken the complaints procedure out of the chain of command, and established the Defence Serious Crime Unit to tackle any criminal wrongdoing. We will introduce training right across defence to ensure that we generate a military culture that respects women. That is all the more important because women can now serve in every single role.

If the Minister has not already done so, I recommend that he make contact with the excellent organisation Salute Her, which I visited in North Tyneside. It supports women veterans, many of whom suffered sexual abuse in the armed forces, and their stories are harrowing. I remind the Minister that, shockingly, a recent Ministry of Defence survey showed that one in seven women in the armed forces has been subject to sexual harassment in the past 12 months alone. What more can he do to work with colleagues throughout the armed forces to root out that dreadful culture?

I have met Salute Her, and we pay attention to its recommendations. The work being done following the Wigston review is hugely important, and I commend the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). That body of work, and the recommendations that we have overwhelmingly accepted, will be carried out at pace across defence.

I remain extremely concerned about the plight of LGBTQ+ service people who before 2001 were routinely court-martialled,

dismissed, or lost their pensions or the right to wear their medals and so on. That is bad enough, but it remains the case today. What more can the Minister do to put that demonstrable injustice right? It is no good setting up a committee—we want it sorted.

I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. The Government look forward to the recommendations of the independent reviewer, Lord Etherton. They will be credible, and we will take them very seriously.

Careers in STEM Subjects: Women and Girls

The increasing number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has been a huge asset to our country. Look at Sarah Gilbert, creator of the covid vaccine. Around 35% of the wage gap can be overcome if we get more women into high paid occupations, and that is exactly what we are working on.

Lack of diversity in science academia is an obstacle that must be overcome to maximise creativity and scientific innovation. Among the findings on diversity data and grant funding from Cancer Research UK was the fact that female and ethnic minority researchers hold fewer programme awards than their white and male colleagues. How can the Government level the playing field for women and ethnic minorities who are applying for research grants in those essential areas?

I am pleased to say that we are now seeing more women enter undergraduate courses in universities: 42% of undergraduate STEM students in the United Kingdom are women. What we need to do is open up all those research opportunities—those more senior opportunities—in our universities.

The good news, of course, is that young women are taking up and studying STEM subjects, but there is a drop-off when it comes to those people going into good, well-paid jobs. What more can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that people not only continue their STEM studies, but continue into good careers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that girls and women are moving through the STEM pipeline. There has been a 31% increase in girls studying STEM subjects since 2010, and more employers are opening up opportunities around the country. We have the STEM boot camps to help people mid-career with STEM training. As my hon. Friend says, that is the way in which we will unleash talent in our country and make sure we are leading in the industries of the future.

Cost of Living: People with Protected Characteristics

4. What assessment she has made of the impact of recent rises in the cost of living on people with protected characteristics. (901078)

The Treasury carefully considers the equalities impacts of policy on those with protected characteristics, in line with both its strong commitment to promoting fairness and its legal obligations under the public sector equality duty. In May, the Government announced over £15 billion of additional support targeted at those with the greatest need.

Single parents—nine in 10 of whom are mothers—are among those most exposed to the cost of living crisis, particularly those aged 25 and under, who get a reduced rate of universal credit. What are the Government doing to evaluate the impact of soaring prices on that group, and why have they not taken steps such as ending the age-related universal credit limit?

The Government’s support package targets the most vulnerable households, including single parents, providing a £650 cost of living payment. I would certainly urge her constituents to contact the local council to see whether the household support fund can also be of assistance.

Today’s report from the Resolution Foundation shows that our economy is over a decade into a period of stagnation after 12 years of Tory rule, yet all we see from the Government Benches is a chaotic Tory tombola of tax cuts, and no plan for the more secure economy that women need. The impact on women has been stark, with 115,000 fewer women in employment now than before the pandemic. Does the Minister have any plans to halt that fall?

The Resolution Foundation has actually praised this Government’s handling of the cost of living pressures. The cost of living support package, totalling £37 billion this year, is in line with our international competitors and more generous than France, Germany and Japan.

There we have it: there is no Conservative plan to support women’s employment. Women are being hammered by the Conservative cost of living crisis, which is getting worse by the day. After 12 years of economic failure, it is little wonder that Tory leadership candidates are trashing their own record. How else can the Minister explain the fact that by next April, average real pay for full-time women workers will have fallen by £670 since the Tories came to power?

There are more people in employment and on payrolls than pre-pandemic levels, and women are driving that growth in our economy. The support programme this Government have introduced is helping women back into work, and I hope that will benefit the hon. Lady’s constituents as well as mine.

According to the Women’s Budget Group, the UK Government’s erosion of the social security system is a key contributor to the current Tory cost of living crisis. Women—particularly those with disabilities or caring responsibilities and those from ethnic minority backgrounds—are disproportionately impacted by that crisis, which is a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. Knowing that, what specific steps has the Minister taken to make sure those equalities impacts are properly taken into account in the UK Government’s response to the cost of living crisis?

As part of our cost of living support package, we have introduced a very specific disability cost of living payment, worth £150 per person. I would add that in the spending review, the UK Government gave the Scottish Government £41 billion a year as part of its settlement: the biggest since devolution, and a 26% increase compared with the average across the UK.

Female Entrepreneurs

We set up a taskforce on women-led high growth enterprise, which met for the first time this month. It will use its convening power to influence high growth investors and the business community, and to raise aspiration of the next generation of female entrepreneurs right across the country.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the fact is that if women were starting and scaling businesses at the same rate as men it would add a staggering £250 billion to the UK economy. We need to turbocharge the investment and support we are giving to female entrepreneurship. What thought has been given to pivoting some of the existing financial packages, such as the enterprise investment scheme, to better support women-led enterprises?

The enterprise investment scheme has specific objectives. It is designed to encourage investment in higher risk early stage companies. However, the Government are committed to supporting women entrepreneurs in a range of ways, as highlighted by the implementation of recommendations from the Rose review. I would be happy to ask a colleague of mine to discuss the issue further with my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) rightly points out some problems with the Government’s schemes, but the Minister, who works within the Department for Work and Pensions, should know that the way that childcare functions within universal credit does not help women become entrepreneurs either. What conversations has she had with the other Ministers in that Department and civil servants on reform to childcare?

The Government are committed to a range of ways to help families—not just women, but parents—with childcare. There is a set of messages we could let go out from this exchange today, which includes encouraging families to take up the childcare options that are available. There will be more that we can do to continue to encourage people to take the work that is right for them and to support them as they do so.

Women in the Workplace

Continuing the previous theme, we are committed to helping women in every workplace and we have announced new initiatives to do that. For example, we have called on all employers to provide salary information in job adverts. As the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) has already articulated, we are helping women to return to STEM roles where their talents are most needed, and, as already touched on, a new taskforce will increase the number of women-led high growth businesses.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she join me in welcoming the unequivocal judgment of the employment appeal tribunal and the employment tribunal in the case of Maya Forstater v. the Centre for Global Development, to the effect that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and that women, and indeed men, must not be discriminated against, harassed or victimised for either holding those beliefs or stating them? Does she agree with me that all employers will require to review their workplace practices in human resources and their equality, diversity and inclusion policies to ensure that they comply with the law as stated in that judgment? Can she tell me what steps she will take to ensure that that happens?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that question. She is, as we all know, very thoughtful on these issues and looks very carefully at the important consequences of the issues at hand. The rulings in that case and others reflect the important balances that the Equality Act already provides for. I think the key point to make in response to her is that we agree that we must protect free speech and allow open discussion. It is, of course, the responsibility of all employers to ensure that they comply with the law as set out in legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, and interpreted by the courts.

In March, the UK Government ratified the International Labour Organisation convention outlawing violence and harassment in the workplace, something that still disproportionately affects women at work. In ratifying that convention, the UK Government need to have in place a programme of work to prevent and enforce the law around those issues. Will the Minister outline how the Government will make sure that they live up to the important provisions in that convention?

My right hon. Friend, as always, makes vital points and I am very pleased that she does. I will ask the Minister for Women and Equalities to write to her with a fuller update so that she can be assured of the Government’s commitment to these vital matters.

Gender Inequalities: Armed Forces

7. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on tackling gender inequalities in the armed forces. (901081)

Women are an integral part of our armed forces and have thriving careers, as my hon. Friend will know from her report, which contained a number of important recommendations. Having tested those with the Army Servicewomen’s Network, we are adopting almost all of them. We have a target of a 30% in-flow of women into the armed forces by 2030. We have improved equipment and uniforms and wraparound childcare. Most importantly, we want to generate a military culture that respects women.

Since the Defence Committee’s report that highlighted inequalities for women in the military, the Ministry of Defence has made good, if not excellent, progress and change is being felt on the ground. The MOD went further and committed to hosting an international Five Eyes conference to share best practice. Will the Minister commit to attending with me?

Following the report from the Defence Sub-Committee, which was chaired by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), may I ask the Minister why, if the Government are taking gender equality in the armed forces seriously, they do not learn from the report from the Sub-Committee and make sure that rape goes into civilian courts and does not remain on an unequal basis in the court martial system?

When the hon. Member sees the formal response to the report, he will have no doubt that we are taking note of these recommendations in absolute earnest. The feedback that I get from young women serving in all roles right across defence is that women should really look forward to service life. There are terrific role models that they can be very proud of.

Transgender Conversion Therapy

8. Whether her Department has undertaken an equalities assessment of the exclusion of transgender conversion therapy in the Government’s forthcoming legislative proposals on conversion therapy. (901082)

As we prepare legislation to ban conversion practices, we continue to assess equality impacts in relation to all protected characteristics, including gender reassignment. We intend to introduce a ban that protects everyone who attempts to change their sexual orientation. There are different considerations for transgender conversion practices and the Government remain committed to exploring them.

There is a respectful debate to be had on single-sex spaces and on trans people in sport, but the Government’s failure on their promise of a full ban on conversion therapy, which caused one equalities Minister to resign last week, is not it. Eight royal colleges and the British Medical Association want this. When will the Government act?

We want to ensure that everyone is protected from the extensive harm that conversion practices cause. It is not unreasonable to take some extra time to avoid an unintended consequence and to build a consensus, so that, together, we can make our legislation as inclusive as possible.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. Will she reassure the House that the discussions and legislation on banning conversion practices will include protecting everybody from these harmful practices?

I acknowledge all the work that my hon. Friend has done on this subject. I absolutely agree that the legislation to ban conversion practices is fundamentally about protecting LGBT people from harm. The experience of victims needs to continue to be at the heart of all considerations, as I know they were when my hon. Friend was the Minister.

Transferring Asylum Seekers to Rwanda: Government’s Equalities Policy

9. If she will make an assessment of the potential effect of transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda under the migration and economic development partnership on (a) the Government’s equalities policy, (b) LGBTQI refugees and (c) refugees with protected characteristics. (901083)

Rwanda is a safe and secure country with respect for the rule of law. We would only ever work with countries that we know are safe, and we will treat asylum seekers in accordance with the relevant international human rights laws. Furthermore, Rwanda’s constitution includes a broad prohibition on discrimination.

The United Nations said that the UK Government’s cruel Rwanda policy breaches international law. The Home Office’s equalities impact assessment of the policy clearly states the dangers for LGBTQI+ people and the UK Government’s website advises against travel to Rwanda for LGBTQI+ people. Women for Refugee Women stated that threatening the removal to Rwanda of women fleeing gender-based violence

“exposes them to further risk of violence and harm”.

How can the UK Government justify this cruel policy?

We have published a robust country assessment, which will be used by caseworkers to inform relocation decisions for each individual case. Nobody will be relocated if it is unsafe to do so.

Topical Questions

The use of rape and sexual violence by Russian forces in Ukraine is central to their appalling war tactics. We are campaigning internationally for sexual violence to be treated as a red line in war, akin to the use of chemical weapons. We have sent a team of experts to the region to collect evidence so that those who commit these appalling war crimes can be held to account.

Sadly, Lib Dem-run City of York Council is continuing with its restrictions, which have an impact on blue badge holders, and is dodging decisions on city centre parking. This is causing a huge disadvantage to rural communities in my constituency who have poor transport links. Does the Minister agree that city centres should be accessible to all?

Yes, passionately, and the Equality Act 2010 sets out ways in which local authorities should ensure that. I will make sure that departmental colleagues know of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

I welcome the Minister for Equalities to her place. She sure has a lot to catch up on, whether that is finally addressing LGBT+ hate crime or finally publishing a women’s health strategy. She will be aware that her predecessor resigned last week because of the Conservative party

“creating an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people”.

That is a damning charge from a sitting Conservative MP. Does the Minister agree with her predecessor?

The Government take all hate crimes seriously, and we have robust laws to respond to them. While police have recorded an increase in hate crimes targeting LGBT communities, the biggest drivers for this are an improvement in police recording and the increased willingness of victims to come forward. It is taken very seriously by the Home Office, and we are working with the police on it.

T2. The Devon local authorities on the Social Mobility Commission’s index start with South Hams, which is 49th out of 324, yet North Devon is 238th. What is my right hon. Friend doing to level up such regional inequalities? (901091)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: one of the biggest issues that we face in this country is geographical inequality. That is why we have appointed Katharine Birbalsingh as head of the Social Mobility Commission. Her school, Michaela Community School in Brent, is fantastic at helping to level up among all groups of people. We want to see more of those types of schools all around our country.

T3.   E-scooters can be difficult for people with sight loss to identify and avoid, especially when they are ridden illegally on a pavement, because they operate quietly. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the illegal and unsafe use of e-scooters on people with a visual impairment? (901092)

I will be meeting the Department for Transport’s disability champion this very afternoon, and I will take that question to discuss with her.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate my constituent, the jewellery designer Monica Vinader, whose roots are in North Norfolk and whose head office is on the Holkham estate, on winning the 2022 Queen’s award for enterprise and sustainable development? Does she agree how wonderful it is to see women in business promoting ethical and sustainable business practices around the country? (901096)

I am pleased to say that I have been to the Holkham estate and seen her fantastic business operating in rural Norfolk. We need to turbocharge rural economies, and we need to get more women into business; we know that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, it would add £250 billion to our economy. She is a fantastic businesswoman.

T4. Some black women in Southwark are disproportion- ately at risk of HIV, but are statistically less likely to access designated sexual health clinics. Does the Minister agree with the report of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS that access to PrEP needs to be improved for this group specifically, through maternity units, at GP clinics and in community pharmacies? (901093)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to make sure that we are protecting people from HIV.

I first got involved in politics when I was 16. One of my many motivations for joining David Cameron’s Conservatives was his socially liberal stance on LGBT+ issues. One of our party’s proudest achievements, in my view, is introducing same-sex marriage. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever the outcome of the leadership election is over the next few weeks, she and her Department will continue to prove that the Conservative Government are on the side of LGBT people?

I was proud to vote for and support gay marriage, which has been a very important step forward for our country.

T5. Given that almost a third of kinship carers have a disability or a chronic condition, and a given that a child in kinship care is twice as likely to be black as white, it is clear that kinship care is an equalities issue. Will the Minister meet me to discuss my Kinship Care Bill, and how we can help the kinship carers who step up to support a child in crisis? (901094)

Order. I want to hear the question answered. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I could not hear it. Please, Minister, try again.

I apologise for the confusion, Mr Speaker. The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is yes: I am happy to do that.

Excellent. Thank you.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I should point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on