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Women and Equalities

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

The Minister for Women and Equalities was //asked—

National Disability Strategy

1. What recent progress the Government have made on implementing the national disability strategy. (902537)

In January 2022, the High Court declared the national disability strategy unlawful. We have been granted permission to appeal this declaration, but to ensure compliance with the Court’s declaration we are obliged to pause a number of the policies referred to in the strategy or are directly connected with it.

Research from Scope shows that life costs more for people who are disabled, and 91% of those surveyed are worried about energy bills this winter. As this weekend marks the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, would the Minister work with his cross-departmental colleagues to revise the eligibility criteria for the warm home discount to reinstate eligibility for the 300,000 disabled welfare claimants?

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his question. It is fair to say that this is a Government who have consistently been supporting people during the significant cost of living challenges that they face. Of course, we have the energy price guarantee, which is a significant part of that package, but I am sure that Ministers in Departments across Government would be very happy to engage with him on the particular point he raises about the warm home discount.

We know that a key challenge for many young people with disabilities is getting assessments and getting them funded, so that they and their parents can find out what disabilities they have. I have a constituent who has been told they must wait up to 18 months for an assessment to find out whether they have autism to be completed. Is there an opportunity in the national disability strategy to better enable and fund the accessibility—and accelerate the completion—of those assessments, which can make a life-changing difference to individuals?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important point. The autism strategy is in place, having had a refresh launched in July 2021 and £74 million of funding in the first year. With the first year having concluded, we will publish our second implementation plan to make further progress on delivering the actions in the strategy. As part of the deliberations on that, we will consider the interesting point that he raises.

Violence against Women and Girls

Tackling violence against women and girls is a Government priority. We have made significant progress since publishing the cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan. That includes launching our national communications campaign “Enough”, resulting in tens of thousands of visits to the website, as well as £55 million of extra funding for CCTV and street lighting to prevent these crimes from happening, with £230 million committed cross-Government to tackling this heinous crime.

New statistics show that just one in 10 victims of partner abuse reported it to the police last year, which means thousands of victims are suffering in silence with no route to justice. The appalling Solihull murders showed just how important the police response to domestic abuse is; where it falls short, the impact can be fatal. Will the Minister listen to Labour and put a domestic abuse specialist in 999 control rooms so that victims who are most at risk can be identified and helped quickly?

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for raising this. I remind the House that it is this Government who have acted in the most robust way possible. The landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was introduced in April last year, but this is about many things: prevention, education, supporting victims, pursuing perpetrators and doing good old-fashioned police work sensitively. I will take no lessons from the Opposition in relation to this sort of issue.

The levels of racist and sexist abuse uncovered in the London Fire Brigade are truly shocking. The independent review tells of women having to run a daily gauntlet of sexist abuse, and one woman even received video calls from a man exposing himself. Such incidents amount to nothing less than misogynistic hate crimes, so will this finally be the wake-up call that this Government need to class misogyny as a hate crime in law?

I look forward to Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, tackling this issue—he has been rather slow on it. This Government are fundamentally in support of proper education to protect people, including women and all other vulnerable people within the force. The Opposition really need to look at their own leaders first, and this Government will continue to work hard.

In one week it will be exactly a year since the Law Commission recommended that public sexual harassment be made a specific crime. Does my hon. Friend agree with Plan International, the Girl Guides, Soroptimist International, Our Streets Now, and many other organisations, and will she either back the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill, or bring forward her own legislation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her campaigning and work in this area. I am always impressed when organisations such as the Girl Guides say something, because it usually has merit. I ask her to be just slightly more patient, because I am hoping for some news in this space very soon.

Following White Ribbon day on Friday, we remember all victims and survivors of violence against women and girls. Last year, only 1.5% of reported rape and sexual violence offences resulted in a conviction. The Minister is right: tackling this issue requires multiple actions, but the Government refuse to take those actions and, sadly, in her responses she was instead seeking to pass the buck. May I ask a straight question? Why will the Government not introduce the following three measures: specialist rape courts, rape and domestic abuse specialists in every police force, and the domestic violence register that Labour has called for?

This Government have undertaken a committed review of that area. They have committed to the end-to-end rape review. For example, no adult rape crime victim should be left without a phone for more than 24 hours. We are on track to deliver many of those new initiatives, and that work goes across Departments. The hon. Lady asked about specialist rape courts, and as a practising barrister for 30 years I expect all courts to deal with rape properly. All these issues are serious and will be addressed.

Conversion Therapy: Legislation

3. What the Government’s planned timetable is for bringing forward legislative proposals on conversion therapy. (902539)

The Government are committed to protecting people from these practices. We are carefully considering the responses to the public consultation on banning conversion practices, which closed this year, and we will set out our next steps and the Government’s response in due course.

That is a deeply disappointing answer, because every day that the Minister delays the Bill, LGBT individuals can be subject to abhorrent and deeply damaging conversion therapy. It is now eight months since the consultation closed, and four years since the Government first promised a ban, so I beg the Minister to bring forward a Bill as soon as possible. Will she reassure the House that the Government’s proposed legislation will bring in a comprehensive ban on all forms of conversion therapy, and include the protection of trans people?

This is a very serious issue, and one reason that it is taking so long is that we are being very considered. Many of the things that people asked for when we first started talking about conversion therapy practices are different from what we are looking at now, so the scope has widened. More importantly, I reassure LGBT people that we can tackle these issues with existing law. We are being very careful in our considerations of what will come into the Bill. The answer that the hon. Lady is requesting will follow on from the consultation, and that will come in due course.

A lot of words and no action. In 2018 a promise was made that conversion practices would be banned. Four years and four Prime Ministers later, this disastrous Tory Government are going backwards with some on their Benches actively fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry towards trans people. When will this Tory Government follow the lead of the SNP Government in Scotland, take action to ban conversion practices, and stop putting trans peoples’ lives at risk?

The hon. Lady from the SNP is, of course, talking absolute nonsense. Government Members are legislators and what we are going to do is bring a robust Bill into law, not one that will be helpful for her to send her tweets. This is about looking after vulnerable people and not about social media campaigning.

Does my right hon. Friend understand the LGBT community’s anxiety when it comes to the ban? It has appeared in multiple Queen’s Speeches, yet we are still to see any draft legislation.

My hon. Friend asks a good question. I do understand the anxiety. One of the things that I am trying to do is take a lot of the heat out of the debate. Questions such as that from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), which seek to inflame anxiety and make people worried about what we are doing, are not helpful. This is something that I am committed to doing. He is right that we have raised it and promised it multiple times. The reason it is taking so long is that it is not as simple as Opposition Members would like it to be. This is a very complex area and, when we do it, we will do it right and permanently.

My constituent Paula Wren is proud to be trans and proud to be a Conservative. She would call straightforwardly for an end to the absurd practice of conversion therapy. It is completely unnecessary for trans people, and the sooner the Government can bring in the Bill, the better it will be.

Last year, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—the most recent former Prime Minister—described conversion therapy as an “abhorrent practice” in the ministerial foreword to the Government’s consultation on banning conversion therapy. Some 11% of trans people in the UK report having been subjected to that so-called therapy by their own families, and those individuals who are subjected to the practice are significantly more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers. I am disappointed in what I have heard, which seems like more kicking into the long grass. Does the right hon. Lady understand that conversion therapy is abhorrent? If so, why will her Government not commit to preventing this harm to trans people by banning the practice for everyone?

It is quite clear that the hon. Lady did not hear any of the answers that I have given, because she has asked something that I have answered multiple times. I refer her to the answers I gave to all those hon. Members.

Health Disparities White Paper

5. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on a timetable for the publication of a health disparities White Paper. (902541)

The Department continues to review how health disparities can be addressed. In relation to the health disparities White Paper, further information will be available in due course.

There is a 20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between those who live in the most deprived areas of the country and those who live in the least. In Gateshead, my local authority, healthy life expectancy is 57.9 years for men and 58.5 years for women compared with a national average of over 63 years. The Conservative party promised in its 2019 manifesto to increase

“healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035.”

Will the Minister come clean and admit that, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the Government are not on track to hit that?

This is the first Government to want to tackle health disparities, which have been in place for generations. It is true that a woman born in Blackpool can expect to live eight fewer years than someone in Wokingham, but that is why the levelling up White Paper included a levelling up health mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between local areas by 2030. I refer the hon. Lady to the Core20PLUS5 work done by NHS England that is tackling the five single health indicators that are most expanding health disparities in the 20% most deprived communities.

Does the Minister agree that the health disparities White Paper is fundamentally an equalities White Paper and about levelling up, so areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, where we have significant issues with affordable, healthy food and an obesity emergency, need to know that the White Paper will cover those recommendations put forward in the national food strategy?

Of course, the health disparities White Paper is important, but work has already started on disparities. As I set out, the NHS has already launched the Core20PLUS5, where the 20% most deprived communities are being targeted with interventions in the five most clinically significant areas. Those are maternity, mental health, respiratory disease, cancer and hypertension. Work has already started, and I know that that is of particular interest in areas such as Stoke.

A new World Health Organisation study, published in The Lancet, found that poorer women in Britain have some of the highest cancer death rates in Europe. Income levels should not be the marker of someone’s chances of getting and dying from cancer. Does the Minister recognise that that is not acceptable, and will she commit to a cross-Government strategy that tackles health inequalities?

I refer the shadow Minister to the work that the Government are already doing. Cancer in particular is one of the five core areas in which we are investing significant resources to diagnose people earlier. She may be interested in the lung cancer detection vans, which go to those communities with the highest incidence rates and poorer outcomes for lung cancer. Some 70% of people with stage 1 or 2 cancer are being detected, significantly improving their life expectancy.

Women in the Workplace

I confirm the Government’s commitment to the empowerment of women in the workplace. Over the last few years, the number of women in full-time work has increased and the gender pay gap has fallen considerably. There is more work to be done and we have announced groundbreaking pay transparency pilots, a number of new returners programmes and a taskforce for women-led high-growth enterprises.

I thank the Minister for her answer. The outgoing vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Dame Louise Richardson, says that she has been shaken by the level of threat and harassment experienced by female academics. To be clear, it is not sexual harassment; it is harassment of female academics because of their belief, in particular, that sex matters and their refusal to agree with extreme gender identity ideology. That harassment often comes from students and third parties, and is not confined to universities—it exists in other workplaces. Can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to address such harassment in the workplace?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her work in this space, which is vital. I point her to the private Member’s Bill on workplace harassment that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is promoting, with Government support, which will introduce legal protections giving employers an explicit duty to prevent workplace harassment by third parties. I look forward to working with the hon. and learned Lady on that Bill.

Sexual harassment disproportionately affects women in work. Back in 2020, a Government survey showed that half of those who reported sexual harassment at work were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which effectively silences victims. To support more women in work, will my hon. Friend look at rolling out more widely the Education Secretary’s successful campaign to stamp out the use of non-disclosure agreements in universities so that more women can benefit from the approach the Government have already undertaken?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her work on this issue. I will of course speak to my colleague in the Department for Education about it, but I want to reassure my right hon. Friend that specific legislation about sexual harassment in the workplace is going through the House at the moment with Government support.

Topical Questions

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is key to the advancement of equality in this country, which is why we welcome the United Nations’ recent reaccreditation of it as an “A status” national human rights institution. To support Baroness Falkner and her board, I will shortly appoint new commissioners and deputy chairs to the commission. The new commissioners will bring complementary expertise and experience to support the Equality and Human Rights Commission in upholding and advancing equality and human rights across the United Kingdom.

Early in the covid pandemic, the Welsh Government commissioned a study that showed how health inequalities affected people from black and ethnic minorities far worse, not just for any supposed medical reasons but for many social reasons. What will the Minister do to try to put right the situation where social inequalities lead to health inequalities in the black and ethnic minority population?

The hon. Lady may not be aware of the extensive, 18-month piece of work that I produced on covid disparities. Some of the things that she mentioned were picked up in that report and the recommendations. One was about the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and that work is ongoing. That body will look at many of the issues that she raised.

T5. The Government’s research demonstrates a clear link between viewing violent pornography and violence against women and girls. More and more online pornography depicts gratuitous violence against women and 50% of 12-year-olds have seen it. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the current and future impact of online pornography on the safety of women and girls, and does she think that the Online Safety Bill goes far enough to prevent children from seeing it? (902557)

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, and I agree with her. Protecting women and girls and preventing children from accessing harmful content, such as online pornography, is a priority for the Government. The Online Safety Bill will introduce new protections for women and girls online. Under the Bill, all services will need to proactively remove and prevent users from being exposed to priority illegal content. That includes the appalling illegal content that affects women and girls, such as revenge and extreme pornography.

Qatar’s record on LGBT+ rights, women’s rights and the treatment of migrant workers means that it should never have been awarded the World cup. Although FIFA’s capitulation over the One Love armband has been shameful, the least that our LGBT+ fans could expect from our Government is advice and support when travelling to matches, yet there is no advice from the Foreign Office or the Government Equalities Office for LGBT+ fans, nor—

Qatar has repeatedly committed that everybody is welcome at the tournament. As colleagues are aware, the Minister with responsibility for sports and equalities—my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—is in Qatar, and I fully respect his decision to wear the One Love armband.

T6. When performing my physics research during my studies more than 20 years ago, I was fortunate that my supervisor was an incredible female professor, Sue Bayliss. The impact that she had on me and the work that she did has encouraged me to support science, technology, engineering and maths for girls in all areas. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what steps the Government are taking to promote STEM in education and as a career pathway for girls so that, one day, many more millions can inspire people like me? (902558)

I thank my hon. Friend for all his work in this space. I reassure him that, to increase the uptake of STEM education by women and girls, we are funding programmes such as the advanced mathematics support programme, the advanced maths premium, the stimulating physics network and the inclusion in schools programme. We have seen a 50% increase in the number of women taking higher education STEM courses since 2011.

T2. In this cost of living crisis, will the Government commit to an emergency domestic abuse fund—[Interruption.]—so that all survivors can access help with fleeing an abuser and no one is left choosing between ongoing abuse and violence, or poverty and hunger? (902554)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have set out the multiple ways in which we are supporting vulnerable people. I am afraid I did not get all of her question, but if she wants to write to me or a Treasury Minister about a more specific issue, we can look into it in more detail.

T7. Will the Minister update the House on what the Government are doing to support women starting up small businesses? (902559)

I thank my hon. Friend for her work in this area. It is crucial that we get more women starting up their own businesses. We anticipate that that would bring in £250 billion to the UK economy. The taskforce that we asked Anne Boden to lead will make recommendations to Government in the new year. We know that venture capital is a huge problem stopping women starting a new business: for every pound of venture capital given to a new business, only a penny goes to women, whereas 89p goes to men.

T3. The Equality Act 2010 does not have the legal teeth needed for enforcement of the law. The responsibility falls entirely on the individuals who have been discriminated against to pursue legal redress. Will the Minister meet the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to discuss its Open Doors campaign and stop the shame whereby nearly three quarters of guide dog owners have reported an access refusal in the past 12 months? (902555)

I would be absolutely delighted to meet Guide Dogs to talk about the campaign. It is an important stakeholder in the disability sector, and we will make sure that that meeting happens.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities will have seen in the news today that between 400 and 500 migrant workers were killed building the stadia in Qatar. Does that not make FIFA’s decision to choose Qatar as a location even more ridiculous? Will she join me in condemning FIFA for the way it has kowtowed to the Government of Qatar in relation to their anti-LGBT bullying?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Ministers and senior officials have raised the concerns of LGBT visitors with Qatari authorities at all levels and will continue to engage on the issue during the World cup. In fact, the Minister for Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), is out there supporting LGBT people and continuing the engagement to ensure that they are protected.

T4. The number of black and ethnic minority students is proportionately higher in further education colleges, but the number of black and ethnic minority lecturers is small and the number of black and ethnic minority college leaders is tiny. What are the Government doing to address that? (902556)

The hon. Gentleman asks an excellent question. This is one of the issues that we looked at in our Inclusive Britain strategy. The Department for Education and the Government Equalities Office are working to ensure that we get the right proportion and representation of people in the education sector. He is right that there is under-representation; we need to look at ways within the Equality Act, such as positive action, to address that and ensure balance.

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