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Women and Equalities

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2023

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Conversion Practices: Legislative Ban

The Government remain committed to publishing a draft Bill on banning conversion practices for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses in this parliamentary Session.

It is now over five years since the Government first made a commitment to legislate on conversion therapy, and more recently there was a promise that legislation would be tabled this spring. Can the Minister elaborate on some of the reasons for the delay, and perhaps be more clear about when the legislation will be brought forward?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely committed to introducing the Bill in its draft stage as soon as possible. It is a complex matter. It is something that I have felt very passionately about over many years, but it is right that we get the legislation right. I hope that we will be able to present it as soon as possible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and, indeed, with the former Prime Minister that conversion therapy is “abhorrent”? If he does agree, does he think it is abhorrent for everyone?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her question. I absolutely agree that it is abhorrent; moreover, it does not work—that is a serious point. Yes, I do believe that that is with regard to everyone.

Given that the Minister has agreed that conversion therapy is abhorrent, and given what my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) said about five years having passed since we were first told that it would be banned—we were then told that the Bill had been scrapped, then that it would be coming back, and then that it would come back with a loophole about consent—does the Minister agree that that confusion is causing unacceptable stress, confusion and fear among the LGBT community? Will the Government commit to ending the confusion soon?

I do not want anybody in the LGBT community to feel fear—I have had that experience myself and I would not wish it on anyone. That is why we are making sure that the Bill is a good Bill that delivers good law to ensure that we outlaw those abhorrent practices. I recognise that the delay has caused some issues for the community, but I assure them that we are on their side.

Through my personal dealings with the Minister, I know how much he is committed to making sure that this legislation comes forward. Can he reassure me that, despite what some have said, the Bill is not about stopping parents from having meaningful conversations with their children who may be questioning their sexuality?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. That is why we need to consider the evidence carefully; those conversations that parents have with their children are really important. I will never forget the conversations I had with my mum and dad, who helped me when I was coming out.

Some 1,835 days have passed since the Government first promised to ban conversion practices. That is longer than it takes to make a good Bill—it is longer than it took to build the Empire State Building and the Shard put together. We were told in January that a Bill would be published “shortly”. Seven months later, can the Minister tell LGBT people how many more days, weeks, months, or even years they must wait?

The answer that the Minister gave a moment ago was that we would see something before the end of this Parliament. I am afraid that is not good enough for those LGBT people who have been waiting for too long.

I will ask the Minister another question. We heard from the Government during their consultation on this ban—even that was almost two years ago now—that they would let some of the worst practitioners off the hook by including a consent loophole. Does the Minister seriously think that LGBT people can consent to abuse and, if not, will he end the charade and remove that loophole so that every LGBT person is protected?

I respectfully say to the hon. Lady that she has not seen the Bill yet, so it is a bit early to make those comments. This is exactly why we are making sure that a Joint Committee of both Houses looks at the Bill; it is a very complex piece of legislation. We want to make sure that it outlaws those awful practices, but also ensures that people—clinicians, parents, teachers and so on—do not feel a chilling effect. It is right that we get stakeholders and people from this House engaged in that process, so that when the Bill is presented to the House for debate, it is in the best possible position.

Pension Credit Uptake

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on increasing the uptake of pension credit among older people. (905950)

Since April last year, we have been running a substantial campaign to raise awareness and increase take-up. There are strong indications that this campaign is working. Applications for pension credit were around 75% higher in the year to May 2023 than in the same period the year before.

My retired constituents, from Dennistoun to Ruchazie, from Carntyne to Blackhill, and across the north and east of Glasgow, know that I am a champion for their rights. That is why I set up the all-party parliamentary group on pension credit, and why I and my team have sat with hundreds of older constituents and helped them to apply for pension credit, which is after all their right. I choose to do this as a constituency MP, but it is our role to champion the rights of older people, and the Minister is not telling me anything that is giving me any comfort that she is actually going to champion them. When will she start doing that?

I thank the hon. Lady for the work that she does for her constituents. Many MPs use the Help to Claim service or the benefits calculator to assist constituents. I think she will be keen to know that the Minister responsible for pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), announced the innovative Invitation to Claim trial, which will be held in 10 local authorities across Great Britain this summer. It will involve the Department for Work and Pensions sending letters to 2,600 pensioner households identified by housing benefit data and most likely to be entitled to pension credit. That is on top of the wide-ranging communications we are already doing.

I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given. Clearly, there is a reluctance among people who are entitled to this benefit to actually claim it. What action is she taking to break down that taboo, so that people who are fully entitled to this money and desperately need it actually claim it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point because some people do not come forward. It is in their make-up. We need to help them to be encouraged that they are absolutely entitled to the benefit. I reassure him that the DWP received around 21,000 claims in the two weeks in the run-up to 19 May, which was 171% up compared with the corresponding weeks in 2022, so the actions we are all taking are working.

Equality Act 2010: Public Bodies

3. What steps she is taking to help ensure that public bodies implement the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. (905951)

The Government have published a range of advice and guidance to help public bodies comply with the Equality Act. The Equality and Human Rights Commission also publishes technical guidance on complying with the public sector equality duty. I will shortly be reissuing my December 2021 update to Ministers on how to comply with the public sector equality duty, especially when it comes to completing equalities impact assessments, and I hope that that is distributed widely.

With the Met police force reluctant to investigate murderous threats towards three sitting MPs for their lawfully protected beliefs and characteristics; a convicted criminal calling for violence against women at Trans Pride incoherently defended as freedom of expression by that same force; and broadcasters, journalists, faith leaders and even the Equalities and Human Rights Commissioner for Scotland all having had their bank accounts closed for what appear to be their lawfully protected characteristics, will the Minister meet me and other affected Members to consider how we tackle this dangerous misinformation, rampant homophobia and misogyny being promoted in our institutions by organisations such as Stonewall?

I take the points that the hon. Gentleman has made very seriously, and I would be very happy to meet him. We are a free and fair society, and we must protect free speech and allow open discussion, as long as it does not break the law.

On bank account closures, banks and other payment services, providers occupy a privileged place in our society, and it would be a serious concern if financial services are being denied to anyone exercising their right to lawful free speech. I need to express this: a notice period of fair and open communication with a customer must apply in those situations that relate to termination on grounds other than suspected or actual criminal offences or when otherwise allowed by law. The Government are currently reviewing evidence on whether the existing payment services and account termination framework is operating effectively, or if further clarification is needed.

We were all delighted that the Government appointed an independent inquiry chaired by Lord Etherton to look into the disgraceful treatment of LGBT soldiers, sailors and air people before 2001 and the fact that those wrongs have not yet been put right. That report was given to the Government some three weeks ago now, and I understand that the Government have said they will produce it before the summer. Will they also answer the report at that time, will they give us a date for it and will there be an oral statement in this House, so we can quiz the Government on the report?

I will speak to my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence who have received the report, and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a response.

Female-led Businesses

4. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase the number of female-led businesses. (905952)

I am working with Cabinet colleagues to harness the skills, innovation and talent of UK female entrepreneurs, and widen opportunities for the next generation of women setting up businesses. That is why we launched a women-led high-growth enterprise taskforce. Building on the work of the Rose review, it brings together some of the country’s most successful female entrepreneurs, led by the founder of Starling Bank, Anne Boden.

I thank the Minister for her answer. We have brilliant successful female entrepreneurs across Anglesey, including Laurel Knight at Medic 1, Lynne Farr at the Beaumaris Artisan Market, Helen Evans at the Amlwch Artisan Studio, and Jo Weir at Beau’s Tea Rooms. We also have some fabulous successful male entrepreneurs such as Celfyn and Emrys Furlong. They are supported by organisations such as Alison Cork’s Make It Your Business, the British Library’s Business and IP Centre, the Federation of Small Businesses Wales, and Small Business Saturday UK. How are this Government supporting those organisations to broaden their reach and empower even more fabulous female entrepreneurs?

My hon. Friend rightly mentions some of the highly successful initiatives led by entrepreneurs, male and female, across Anglesey, which we fully support. Those are exactly the sort of organisations that we like to see flourish across the UK. Just last week, I spoke to the women and enterprise all-party group, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey). That was attended by female entrepreneurs from across the country, who talked about how the Government are investing in women, and how the Rose review and the high-growth enterprise taskforce are having an impact on their lives and businesses.

Pathways, a new approach for women and enterprise, was commissioned by the Scottish Government. It has begun to implement, along with key stakeholders, including enterprise agencies, the Scottish National Investment Bank and private investors, ways to include under-represented parts of society in the business system. What steps are the UK Government taking to weave inclusivity through the business support system in a similar fashion to that in Scotland?

We believe that businesses are best placed to do that themselves, and we provide as much advice, guidance and support as possible. For example, the British Business Bank has led many schemes and initiatives to promote inclusivity in the workplace. However, if there is something specific where the hon. Gentleman thinks there is a gap in the market, I would be happy to hear about such an initiative.

Under the Conservatives, just 12% of executive directors of FTSE 250 companies are women—a gap that will not close until 2058 at the current rate. Women who want to go into business cannot wait for the Conservatives to get their act together. They need a new deal for working people, a review of the gender pay gap, and a menopause action plan in the workplace. That is Labour’s pro-business, pro-women plan to smash the glass ceiling and break down the barriers. Does the Minister have a plan?

I am afraid that the shadow Front-Bench spokeswoman is confusing all sorts of different things. FTSE directors are not the ones who need support getting into the workplace. She is talking about a menopause action plan, but we have had one, completed and delivered it, while Labour Members are just talking about bringing one in, which shows that they are not paying attention. We are the only ones who will be doing what is right to promote gender equality in the workplace.

Government Equalities Office: Policy Relating to Men

5. If she will hold discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of including policy relating to men on the list of Government Equalities Office responsibilities. (905954)

The Government are already taking action to improve outcomes for men and boys. For example, through the introduction of shared parental leave, men now have more opportunity to take time away from the workplace to care for their children. We continue to work closely across Government to embed equalities policies for both men and women.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but does she believe that there should be a Minister for Men, as there is a Minister for Women?

I thank my hon. Friend for his hard work in this space as chair of the all-party group on issues affecting men and boys. He knows—this is with my health hat on—of the work that we are doing to improve lung cancer outcomes for men, and about the suicide prevention strategy that will be coming forward; we know that middle-aged men are at particular risk. I reassure him that the Equality Hub has responsibility for both men and women to ensure equality for all, and I will speak to the Minister for Women and Equalities so that we can be clearer about how that work impacts on men.

Current legislation requires all public facilities to have sanitary bins in female and gender-neutral toilets. However, as highlighted by the Boys Need Bins campaign, hygiene bins need to be provided in men’s toilets. What steps is the Minister taking to introduce legislation that addresses that issue?

I reassure the hon. Lady that work is going on in that space. My ministerial colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions are looking at this, and will be updating the House shortly.[Official Report, 17 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 9MC.]

Gender and Racial Inequality in the Workplace

6. What steps the Government is taking to help tackle (a) gender and (b) racial inequality in the workplace. (905955)

9. What steps the Government is taking to help tackle (a) gender and (b) racial inequality in the workplace. (905958)

The Government have taken numerous steps to tackle gender and racial inequality in the workplace, as seen with the comprehensive actions outlined in our landmark “Inclusive Britain” strategy, as well as various initiatives to support women in the workplace. As outlined in our “Inclusive Britain” report, we are working towards a new voluntary inclusion confident scheme to support employers on clear, manageable advice on effective diversity and inclusion interventions.

Like most things in this place, this Government’s policy on parental leave is in the dark ages. Research by Pregnant Then Screwed shows that better-paid parental leave for all parents would bring better equality in the labour market, yet this Government seem dogged in their determination to stand still. Why are the Government blocking greater gender equality in the workplace?

I completely disagree with the hon. Lady. This Government have done more than any other to promote gender equality in the workplace, including bringing in policies such as shared parental leave. We have also brought in extended redundancy protection for those on maternity leave and introduced carer’s leave, and we are supporting legislation to strengthen the protections against harassment in the workplace.

A new report from the Fawcett Society shows the motherhood pay penalty and how mothers with two children take home 26% less income than women without children, impacting on a woman’s income and earning power throughout her working life. It compounds the effects of the ethnicity pay gap. Will the UK Government tackle that by making flexible working the default and introducing mandatory gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting?

We have just finished a private Member’s Bill that makes the right to ask for flexible working mandatory. That strikes the right balance for business, rather than making it mandatory for people to demand flexible working. Not every business can provide it, and it is not something that will improve equality in the workplace.

When I asked black and minority ethnic residents in Basingstoke about their experience at work, their responses were concerning. I have been working especially with our big local employers, the local education authority and the NHS to tackle the issues. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that public services are exemplars when it comes to race equality in the workplace?

If my right hon. Friend sees the work that we have put into our “Inclusive Britain” strategy, she will see that almost everything that is in action is about the public sector. There is so much we can do to promote racial equality in the workplace, but we need to do that fairly and transparently, as well as universally. The Equality Act 2010 protects characteristics, not groups. If she would like to work with me on any specific initiative, I would be keen to hear more from her about what she has been working on.

There are growing concerns about new technology such as artificial intelligence and automation software being used in recruitment and employment. Studies show that AI perpetuates bias across gender, race, age and disability, as well as dialect and regional differences of speech. What recent assessment has the Minister made of the equalities impact of AI use in recruitment and the workplace? Has she raised that with Cabinet colleagues?

Yes, I have raised it with Cabinet colleagues. In fact, I had a meeting with the Government chief scientific officer just last week on this issue. It is a concern that AI can embed bias, and that means we need to look at the datasets and large language models that are informing the AI being used. Equality impact assessments apply to the public sector equality duty, and much of AI is being done in the private sector. We will do our part, but I am keen to hear from Members about specific initiatives that they think can help.

Topical Questions

In February this year, we announced the STEM ReCharge pilot to support parents and carers back into science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles. Since then, we have recruited and trained the first cohort of engineering and technology returners in the midlands and the north of England. They have received personalised training and support to help to get them back into the workforce, and we are now recruiting a second cohort, who will use insight and lessons learned from the pilot to develop new guidance, so that STEM employers across the UK can benefit from the full wealth of the returning STEM group.

The summer holidays, which are approaching, see a spike in domestic abuse. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that people know there is help available? Will she lend her support to the campaign I am running in Basingstoke with the police and crime commissioner Donna Jones to help to make sure that victims of domestic abuse in north Hampshire know they are not alone and that there is help there?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is important that people know where to go for help when they have experienced domestic abuse. The Government are providing police and crime commissioners with dedicated ringfenced funding for at least 900 independent sexual violence and domestic abuse advisers and will fund an additional 100, bringing the total to more than 1,000 by 2025.

T2. The cost of living crisis disproportionately affects disabled constituents who are reliant on specialist diets and equipment and now face increased food and energy costs. Will the Minister confirm what cross-governmental action the Government can take to better support disabled constituents with those additional costs? (905975)

The Government recognise the challenges for disabled people and those with health conditions. The £150 disability cost of living payment should be seen as one part of the overall package. The benefits calculators on will help people to claim the wider benefits that are out there—that is just one of the payments.

T3. Last week, I hosted the Institute of Physics and its campaign to increase diversity in physics, which is the second most popular A-level for boys but only the 16th for girls. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage more girls to study physics beyond GCSE? (905976)

Studying STEM A-levels such as physics can boost potential earnings and, with a growing demand for students with STEM qualifications in the jobs market, it is important that girls take that opportunity. We are therefore working with the Department for Education in funding the Inclusion in Schools project, which is designed to increase the uptake of A-level physics among students from under-represented groups, including girls.

T4.   Homelessness is on the rise, and it disproportionately affects young LGBT+ people. The youth LGBT+ homelessness charity Albert Kennedy Trust has reported a 58% increase in new referrals over the past four years. Will the Minister work with Cabinet colleagues to better understand the specific challenges that people in the community face with homelessness and look at what more can be done to support them? (905977)

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. I am pleased to report that I have met colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and we have held a roundtable to discuss exactly those issues. One of the key elements, which we really need to do, is to gather the data so that we can better understand some of the causes and what the solutions might be to help those people.

T6. How many discussions has the Secretary of State had with Department for Education colleagues about forthcoming guidance on trans-identifying children? (905979)

I have been working closely with the Education Secretary, because it is important that we get the guidance for schools right. It must show schools how to be compassionate to pupils questioning their gender in a way that is compliant with the Equality Act 2010, including ensuring that single-sex spaces are maintained and the safety and wellbeing of all pupils is not compromised.

T5.   Conversion therapy should be banned entirely, not with a voluntary loophole, as this Government intend, which we know means that conversion therapy will be open to coercion. The loophole is so large that it will leave any Bill meaningless. Will the Minister commit to a full ban on conversion therapy, as supported by organisations such as Stonewall and Time for Inclusive Education in Scotland? (905978)

The hon. Lady raised some important points. That is exactly why we have taken considerable care to engage with a whole range of stakeholders to consider all the issues that need addressing. It is precisely because of those points that we are going for pre-legislative scrunty so that all of those issues can be looked at again, to ensure that we present the very best Bill to help people who are subject to these horrible crimes.

GambleAware figures show that the number of women seeking help for problem gambling doubled between 2015 and 2020, with up to 1 million women deemed to be at risk. Data also shows that women are less likely to participate in sports betting; instead, they are more active in online bingo and casino-style games. What work is my right hon. Friend doing with Cabinet colleagues to highlight the risk of online gambling, to reduce stigma and to help women seek treatment?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. We recently published the gambling White Paper, in which we address a number of those issues. Stigma is a very important one. We want people to come forward and get the treatment they need. We are also introducing a statutory levy on gambling operators to ensure that we have the prevention and treatment needed to help those suffering with gambling harm.

T7.   Earlier this year, the Government cut almost £6 million of funding for a Save the Children programme providing education and other services to girls in Afghanistan, despite a promise to put women and girls at the heart of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s work. Will the Secretary of State work with colleagues at the Department to deliver on the Government’s commitment and reinstate that funding? (905980)

Educating girls is one of the top priorities under the British Government’s international development strategy—indeed, it is the way to change the world. Over the last five years for which figures are available, the British taxpayer procured a decent education for more than 8 million children in the poor world.