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Women and Equalities

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Single-sex Spaces

We are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. The Equality Act 2010 sets out that providers have the right to restrict use of services on the basis of sex where there is justified and proportionate reason.

A number of Members of the House have relatives or family members who are trans, and we will all have constituents who are members of the trans community. Does the Minister agree that trans people need safe spaces, too?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the tone in which the debate should take place. Just a few weeks ago, we had a debate in Westminster Hall where I absolutely made that point. This is not about pitting women against the trans community. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, but it is important that biological women have the ability to access single-sex spaces, too.

Candidate Diversity: Democratic Process

2. What steps the Government are taking to help increase the participation of minority ethnic groups in the democratic process. (906692)

15. Whether she has had discussions with stakeholders on improving the diversity of parliamentary candidates. (906705)

The Government have worked hard to remove any material obstacles to democratic participation for all eligible groups. Registering to vote is quick and easy, taking as little as five minutes. Any elector without an accepted form of photographic identification can apply for a voter authority certificate from their local authority free of charge, or alternatively they could vote by post or proxy.

I have a thriving British-Albanian community in my Chipping Barnet constituency, making a really positive contribution to our culture and economy. What more can the Government do to encourage them to be involved in campaigning at elections, voting in elections and standing as candidates in elections?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in ensuring that everyone participates in the democratic process. I agree with her, but it is ultimately for local registration teams to ensure as best they can that all eligible electors in their area are correctly registered to vote. We want to ensure that all parts of the UK are equally represented in politics and the democratic system where they are eligible.

With almost a quarter of the UK’s population registered as disabled, does the Minister agree that all political parties need to try harder in the run-up to the next general election in selecting a diverse group of candidates, with perhaps slightly less emphasis on nepotism and more on the representation of ordinary voters, including those from all ethnic minority backgrounds?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question, and I thank her for all the work she does campaigning for women’s rights. She has been at the vanguard of some contentious issues. She is quite right to raise candidate selection. All political parties have to make the very best of efforts in ensuring that a meritocracy exists and helping those including disabled people who might need additional assistance in participating through some of the difficult selection processes. I highlight again how diverse the Conservative party is, and the Cabinet in particular. That is testament to the fact that meritocracy works. We hope that others will learn from our example.

The Labour party has more women and ethnic minority MPs than the rest of the political parties put together. We know that that leads to better outcomes for British people, but there is always further to go. That is why we have committed to enacting section 106 of the Equality Act so that all political parties would be required to be transparent about the diversity of their candidates. Why will the Government not do the same?

At the end of the day, it is the electorate who decide who gets to represent them. The hon. Member might be cherry-picking statistics on which party is the most diverse. We can do the same and talk about how the Conservatives have had three female Prime Ministers when Labour has not had even a single leader. If she wants to dive deep down and be granular, we have more black men in our party than in all the other parties combined. This splitting hairs is not helpful; what we need to do is ensure that the process is as meritocratic as possible.

Women in STEM Jobs

We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. Our challenge now is to do more to get them into STEM jobs. To support that, we launched a scheme called STEM returners, as one of our programmes to grow the skills of people who have taken a career break. We have so far had 42 women in our first cohort and 54 have signed up for our second cohort, getting women with experience and skills back into STEM jobs.

While the UK-wide responsibility in areas such as energy and defence among others is reserved to this Parliament, education, skills, universities, colleges and apprenticeships among others are devolved. What discussions has my hon. Friend the Minister had with other UK Government Ministers and devolved Administrations to ensure that the opportunity for women to get their STEM education and skills, and to maintain their careers, is maximised across the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work, particularly around promoting the energy sector across the United Kingdom. We are making progress on trying to get women and girls into that vital sector. One of our Build Back Better campaigns is seeking to inspire women from all walks of life to work in the green energy economy and raise awareness of green education, training and careers. My colleague the Minister with responsibility for employment and I regularly meet devolved colleagues to discuss how we can have a United Kingdom approach to this issue.

Last week I met a group of life science apprentices, young women and young men, who have taken up some great opportunities with STEM employers. One issue they raised with me was the lack of information about non-trade apprenticeships when they were considering their career options. What more can my hon. Friend do to promote STEM apprenticeships for the 16 to 18-year-olds who may not want to pursue the university route?

My hon. Friend is a shining example of how women can lead in the STEM sector, with her own experience in clinical care before she came to this place. We are trying to drive forward apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Since May 2010, over 5 million apprenticeship starts have happened and our apprenticeship diversity champions are helping those aged 16 and over to get into apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Organisations such as UCAS and Young Women’s Trust are also doing that specific work.

The Scottish Government have a number of ambitions to address the lack of women in STEM occupations and settings such as schools. Those ambitions start early. The gender pay gap action plan examines how schools have a key role in helping young women make transitions into broader occupations, as well as setting out measures that address occupation segregation, leading to more women accessing STEM careers. What are the Government doing to provide that kind of support?

One key route is through apprenticeships. For many young women, being able to earn while you learn and getting that work experience is vital for them to progress through the STEM sector. We have 22,000 degree apprenticeships and seven masters degree apprenticeships. That is an increase of 14%. In STEM subjects in particular, we have 360 employer design apprenticeships, including level 3 cyber-security, level 4 software development and level 6 civil engineering. We believe apprenticeships are the way forward to drive more women into STEM areas.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In Northern Ireland, women are under-represented in STEM industries. Only 15% of women in Northern Ireland study core STEM subjects, compared to 36% of men. That is a clear anomaly that needs to be addressed. May I encourage the Minister to use her office to engage with the Department for the Economy to encourage more uptake in university STEM subjects? Women can do the job every bit as well as a man given that opportunity.

I thank the hon. Member for that question. That goes to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). We need a UK approach. Across the Government, whether in the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Education, we focus on trying to improve all avenues for those, particularly women, who want to go into STEM areas.

LGBT People

The UK has a proud history of LGBT rights, and one of the world’s most comprehensive and robust legislative protection frameworks for LGBT people. We have taken great strides as a country over the last couple of decades and it is my job to continue that journey.

The Minister is absolutely right: great things have been done for LGBT+ people in the last 13 years, including blood donation changes, the PrEP—pre-exposure prophylaxis—roll-out, and of course same-sex marriage. However, hate crime against LGBT+ people is on the up, conversion therapy still has not been banned and the UK has slipped down the ranking for LGBT+ equality. I know that this Minister takes these issues incredibly seriously, but how can he assure me that the Government take them seriously and that they will tackle them as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of all forms of anti-LGBT hate crimes. They are utterly unacceptable, and we have a robust legislative framework to respond to that. I met representatives of the Metropolitan police and other stakeholders just last week to ensure that everything possible was being done to crack down on such crimes. There will be further questions later about conversion practices, and we are considering all those issues. This is a complex area of work, but I give my hon. Friend a personal commitment that anything to do with LGBT rights and improving the lives of LGBT people will be high on my agenda.

A Bill banning the psychological abuse that some people call conversion therapy has been promised repeatedly in this Session from that Dispatch Box. Where is it?

I accept that, and I apologise for the fact that it has taken so long, but, as I have said, it is a complex issue. I have been personally campaigning for this for many years, but even I recognise there are deep complexities. It is right that we take the time to consider each of the issues carefully, so that what we have in place is consistent, robust and up to date, and tackles these appalling practices.

Almost 2,000 days have passed since the Government first promised to ban conversion therapy, and 533 days have passed since a conversion therapy Bill was promised in the last Queen’s Speech. The delays are not this Minister’s responsibility; according to the press, they are a result of differing views on the Government Front Bench, but because of that there is still no Bill. Can the Minister tell the House whether the next King’s Speech will include a commitment to a full, loophole-free ban on LGBT conversion therapy—yes or no?

I should have thought the hon. Lady would know that no one ever makes announcements about what is in the King’s Speech ahead of His Majesty’s delivery of that speech. Let me also say to her, respectfully, that she should not believe everything she reads in the press. As for the rest of her question, I refer her to the answer I gave a few moments ago.

I would therefore counsel the Minister to advise his colleagues to stop briefing the press on these issues and get on with delivering, because there are failures when it comes to delivery for LGBT+ people. Yesterday I met Michael Smith, who was viciously attacked at a bus stop simply for being with his partner. Police-recorded sexual orientation hate crime has increased by more than 70% in the last five years, and more than a third of all hate crimes are now “violence against the person” offences. I know that the Minister cares deeply about this subject, so can he please explain why his Government do not agree with Labour or with the Law Commission that every violent act of hatred should be punished in the same way—as an aggravated offence?

Let me say to the hon. Lady that as someone who was hospitalised after being attacked because of my sexuality, I know how difficult that is. It is not just the attack that is painful but what is left afterwards.

I will continue to raise each of these issues, but I want to make this point. I keep hearing that we do not care about LGBT issues. It was this Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and it was this Government who introduced it in Northern Ireland. It was this Government who introduced Turing’s law in 2017. We have modernised gender recognition certificates and made them affordable. We have removed self-funding for fertility treatment for same sex-couples, lifted the ban on blood donation, and tackled LGBT-related bullying in schools. We have apologised for the way in which LGBT people were treated in the armed forces, and we have provided funding to ensure that LGBT rights across the Commonwealth are protected.[Official Report, 7 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 4MC.]

Pay Inequalities

Owing to my joint roles—I am also Secretary of State for Business and Trade—I have a unique understanding of unjust pay disparities, and I am proud of the steps that this Government have taken to tackle them. We will publish new guidance in April to help employers to measure, report on and address unfair ethnicity pay differences, and it was a Conservative Government who introduced gender pay gap reporting in 2017.

Nineteen US states have banned employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history, meaning that people are paid what the job is worth and not just what the bosses can get away with. This has had a massive impact on tackling unequal pay for women and black workers in particular. Having talked about piloting a similar salary history measure, why have the Government appeared to stall on what would be a really positive policy?

We are not stalling. Our pilot will support employers to take steps towards transparency in their own organisations, to see the impact for themselves. We know that this is not straightforward, which is why we will ensure that employers looking to implement greater transparency in their recruitment processes are able to access best practice and learn from each other.

The UK Government’s “Inclusive Britain update report” acknowledges the value of measuring the ethnicity pay gap and the Government have published guidance for employers noting that employers can use ethnicity pay gap calculations to consider evidence-based actions to address any unfair disparities. Despite that, the UK Government will not legislate to mandate reporting. Since employment law is a reserved matter, will the Minister urge her Government to do the right thing and mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting, or urge the devolution of employment law to Scotland so that the Scottish Government can?

Absolutely not. This is something that we will not be devolving and it absolutely should not be mandatory. Ethnicity pay gaps cannot be measured in the same way as gender pay gaps. I have said this to the hon. Lady at this Dispatch Box multiple times. We can measure a pay gap where a population is binary male and female but we cannot do it across a broad spectrum of ethnicity. We have published guidance for those employers who want to do this, but it would be absolutely wrong to mandate.

Disabled People: Additional Costs

6. What recent estimate she has made of the level of additional costs affecting households with disabled people. (906696)

We will spend around £78.6 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. No such estimate has been made but as a Government we are providing total support of more than £94 billion from 2022 to 2024 and we are determined to help all households and individuals with the rising cost of bills. This includes an additional £150 for more than 6 million disabled people.

That is great, but back in the real world the Minister really does know that the rising cost of living is having a disproportionately negative impact on disabled people. They face higher living costs as a consequence and they still face barriers to employment. Does she accept that targeted action, including disability pay gap reporting, is now needed to support disabled people?

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about his disabled constituents, I can point him to the household support fund, which is also helping those constituents and their carers. In his constituency—in his real world—an additional £4.4 million has landed to support him. This is not a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, but I am sure that it will have been heard.

My hon. Friend will be aware that funds are made available to get disabled people into employment via Access to Work. However, there are significant delays in those funds being made available, once granted. Additional costs to disabled people—for example, their paying £6,000 for powered wheels—come at more of a cost when they are obliged to pay for them on their credit card because they cannot access the funds in time. Will she please work with colleagues across the DWP to ensure that there are no delays in getting access to the funds that will help disabled people into work?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her point, which gives me the opportunity to say that from next Tuesday an additional £300 will be paid in cost of living payments to those who are eligible. Regarding access to work, there is a continuing focus on improving waiting times for customers and we are streamlining and digitising the process. Indeed, I spoke to the Minister for Disabled People this week on exactly this matter in relation to one of my own constituents, and I will see that he hears it again from my right hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

As the Minister for Women and Equalities, it would be remiss of me not to reflect on the way religious communities in the UK have been impacted by the terrible events in the middle east. All our citizens have a right to feel secure and at peace in Britain. One of the reasons we have been able to integrate people from all over the world is an unwritten rule that people with roots elsewhere do not play out foreign conflicts on the streets of this country. We owe a duty of care and civility to our neighbours, whatever their ethnicity, religion or background. All of us are free to practise our faiths and celebrate our cultures, but we must do so in a positive way, consistent with fundamental values that are the bedrock of Britain.

I am afraid to say that in recent days we have seen that social contract being breached. In particular, I believe that the hostility directed towards our Jewish communities, the calls for jihad, the ostentatious indifference to the victims of terrorism, the aggressive chanting by mobs brandishing placards of hate, and the odious people ripping down posters of missing children do not reflect our values as a nation.

We must all stand firm on the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, particularly in the public space that we all share. That is why today I am reminding public sector organisations that they have a legal obligation, as part of the equality duty, to consider how they contribute to the advancement of good relations in communities as they deliver public services. Where organisations are having difficulty doing that, I urge them to write to me as soon as possible for advice on how they can fulfil their legal obligations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There should be no place for hatred in our communities.

As a woman in her 50s—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—I know how challenging the menopause can be, especially when you have a busy job. What support is there for working women with the menopause?

I hope that my right hon. Friend feels that she is supported by all of her colleagues. I am delighted to let her know that there will be a full debate on menopause tomorrow, led by the Minister for Social Mobility. I am proud of the great strides that Helen Tomlinson has made since her appointment as the Department for Work and Pensions menopause employment champion. The report “No Time to Step Back” details this progress and looks forward to the next six months, including the sector-specific workshops.

T2. In less than a decade, the proportion of female pensioners in the UK living in poverty has risen by 6%, which means that one in every five female pensioners are below the breadline, despite the fact that the number of female pensioners has fallen due to the rise in state pension age, which disadvantaged tens of thousands of older women. Does the Minister for Equalities share my concern that in the UK today 20% of female pensioners are living in poverty, and what action will she take to address that? (906707)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point. In 2021-22, there were 200,000 fewer female pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10, after housing costs. I point the hon. Lady to the Barnett consequentials of the household support fund in Scotland, which is there to be distributed by her Government to those in need.

T3. As you will know, Mr Speaker, Watford is a thriving multi-faith community, and it is a privilege to take part in so many celebrations and learn about the history of each culture that makes Watford unique and amazing. Will the Minister join me in encouraging colleagues to attend the event that I will be hosting with the Inter Faith Network on 14 November to promote a national organisation to understand how we can all engage better with the different faiths in our communities, and will he please also consider attending the event, if diaries permit? (906708)

Faith is a vital part of people’s identities and of their communities. We fully support the invaluable work being done by people around the country who are inspired by their faith. My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the work that goes on in his own constituency. I certainly encourage people to attend that event, and I will do everything I can to pop in myself.

T5. A year ago, the Public Order Bill was passed in this House, and with it my new clause, which was overwhelmingly supported in a free vote by MPs on both sides of the House, to stop women being deterred from using and entering the doors of abortion clinics by protests outside. A year on, intimidation is worse than ever, because the legislation is not being enacted. Will the Minister look into why that is and fix this now? (906710)

If the hon. Lady has a specific example of where that is happening, I will be happy to look at it if she raises it with me.

T4. In its 2021 census, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there are 260,000 transgender people in the UK. Does the Minister agree with the separate Office for Statistics Regulation that, due to skewed methodology, this number is likely to have been a huge overestimate? (906709)

I share the concerns that the Office for Statistics Regulation has raised and, in February, I asked my officials to explore with the ONS whether because of a lack of understanding of the question the census had the number right. We need to be very careful about language. People do not often understand what we mean when we use terms such as transgender and gender identity. We have to make sure that they understand them. The ONS will be conducting and reporting on research to explore that issue, and it should publish the results by the end of the year and will monitor them going forward.

T6.   Some years ago, the United Nations found that disabled people’s rights were being systematically violated by Conservative Ministers. Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that nothing at all had changed. Is the Minister not ashamed? (906711)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter. The point regarding the EHRC is that it is an independent and public body, but I do not think that any Member comes to this House to erode anybody’s rights whether they are disabled or have a health issue. I absolutely refute what the hon. Lady says. She should look at our actions and our record of the work that we have done around British Sign Language and more widely. We stand by all constituents whatever their needs.

Just before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to welcome to this Chamber the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.