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Women and Equalities

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Support for People with Disabilities

The Government deliver wide-ranging support for disabled people, including in work and education. We continually seek to enhance support—for example, via improvements to the health and disability benefits system, and in the accessibility of homes and transport, and through delivery of the national disability strategy and the disability action plan.

The United Nations has found that the Government have breached the rights of sick and disabled people, including their rights at work, and the UK’s own equality watchdog has said that the Department for Work and Pensions has discriminated against sick and disabled people. Given that only 2.7% of participants in the Government’s work and health programme have a successful job outcome, what meaningful proposals do the Government have to reduce the 29% disability employment gap?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, which takes me back to our time on the Work and Pensions Committee. I genuinely feel disappointed about that report, and the Government strongly rejected its findings in 2016, but we will continue to implement the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and the Committee’s recommendations through many of our policies to improve disabled people’s lives, whether that is WorkWell, our disability employment advisers, or the work we are doing on fit note reform. We are absolutely determined to support disabled people in work. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2024 there were 10.3 million disabled people in employment, which is an increase of 400,000 on the year before.

I know that my hon. Friend is absolutely committed to disability employment, but can she please outline exactly what she is doing, both at the DWP and in her wider role across Government, to ensure that inclusion is embedded in policy and leadership so that disabled people—particularly those who are neurodiverse—are supported into civil service jobs?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her point and for her work in this area. We are delivering on the Buckland review, and all ministerial Departments are signing up to Disability Confident, progressing to Disability Confident leader status and having evidence independently validated on that work. Arm’s length bodies are also signing up to Disability Confident, and we are working with parent Departments to encourage more of them to do the same. One in 10 senior civil servants declare themselves to be disabled, and since 2013 the proportion of civil servants with a disability has increased to 16.8%.

I am already a little confused by the Minister’s answers this morning. In December I raised the issue of the disability pay gap, and she replied from the Dispatch Box that the Government were closing the disability employment gap. She has mentioned this morning that that is apparently happening, but the numbers tell a different story: in the period from January to March 2024, 100,000 fewer people with disabilities were in employment compared with the same period 12 months earlier. Why does she think the plan is not working?

The hon. Lady and I could trade statistics, but what I am interested in is opportunities for disabled people and people with health conditions, hence the work we are doing on the Buckland review, and indeed on entrepreneurship and the Lilac review—there will be further updates on that to the House shortly. If the hon. Lady is ready to listen, I can reassure her that we are working on the Disability Confident scheme and are doing further work on the employment goal, and I will update the House soon.

Menopause: Workplace Support

In March last year we appointed Helen Tomlinson as the Government’s first ever menopause employment champion. She has been working up and down the country, visiting businesses large and small and giving them advice on policies to support menopausal women in the workplace. She recently published her 12-month review, “Shattering the Silence about Menopause”.

I am grateful for that reply. Labour is the party of women’s equality. The previous Labour Government did more to advance equality than any other, and the next one will match that record. We are committed to supporting women experiencing menopause to thrive at work by requiring large employers to adopt menopause action plans. Will the Minister do the same?

As usual, this Government have already done all of that work. In England we have the Wellbeing of Women pledge, which the NHS, the civil service and this Parliament have signed. We will take no lectures from Labour on women’s health. While we have had a women’s health strategy for two years, Labour-run Wales has no health plan for women.

Research shows that one in 10 women with menopausal symptoms have left work due to a lack of support. In some cases, this will have been due to discrimination. Women experiencing menopause know that this is because of their age and sex, but the law does not protect them on that combined basis. Why not?

The Equality Act 2010 already protects women on the basis of sex, age and disability. It is this Government who are changing the experience of menopause by rolling out women’s health hubs in every integrated care board across England, so that women can access menopause support. We also have our hormone replacement therapy prepayment certificate, which is available for just under £20 a year for women to get all their HRT prescriptions. Over half a million women in England have bought one of those certificates.

The Minister referred to Labour’s Equality Act, which of course includes protections against dual discrimination, but the Conservatives have refused to enact those protections. Labour would put that right. We would also require large businesses to produce menopause action plans, which the Government have refused to do, and we would also publish guidance for smaller businesses. We would set a new investment target for women-led start-ups, and we would transform the rights of women at work with a new deal for working people. The Minister for Women and Equalities has suggested, of course, that menopause at work is a left-wing issue. Does this Minister agree?

The shadow Minister fails to mention the Help to Grow portal, which has a menopause resource hub that enables employers to use that information to better support women in the workplace, whether with flexible working—under laws that this Conservative Government have introduced—or through simple measures such as recognising that even the uniform a woman wears in the workplace can make a difference. This Conservative Government have raised the bar on menopause health and support in the workplace and in healthcare, while Labour for many years could not even define what a woman actually is.

Community Cohesion

In this country, we believe in religious freedom. Everyone should be able to express their identity, faith and beliefs. However, this must be done in a way that respects the rights of others. Community cohesion in many of our towns and cities has been strained in recent months, following the 7 October attacks in Israel. The boundaries of acceptable behaviour in the public sphere are being tested. That is why on 18 December 2023 I published new guidance for public authorities, reminding them of their legal obligations under the public sector equality duty, and specifically that they should consider how they contribute to the advancement of good relations in communities as they deliver public services.

My right hon. Friend will know that, in Romford, our national, country and county flags—the Union Jack, the cross of St George and the flag of Essex—are flown with great pride as inclusive symbols of our shared identity. Does she agree that all public buildings, schools and organisations should be encouraged to fly the appropriate flags as symbols of unity, patriotism and equality, rather than of division?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The Union Jack and the cross of St George are symbols of unity, not division, and of course, as an Essex MP, I am also particularly fond of our county flag. The point is that national pride should be celebrated, not shunned. That is why anyone in the UK is able to fly any of our national flags without needing the consent of their local authority, as per Government regulations that exempt national flags.

I thank the Minister for her answers. On community cohesion between different ethnicities, what plans does she have to make funding available to enable community events whereby each member of a community can demonstrate their culture and heritage, with all ages and all groups, and to build relationships in a similar way to what we are doing in Northern Ireland?

We encourage every celebration of the diversity in ethnicity that we have in this country. In particular, the Government want to emphasise equality under the law, the fact that there are not protected groups but protected characteristics, and that everyone should be free from discrimination. We know that in many events up and down the country, including in Northern Ireland, that is what is being celebrated, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that in the House. We encourage all local communities to do just that.

Welfare Reform: Disabled People

4. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Government’s proposed welfare reforms on disabled people. (902864)

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Government’s proposed welfare reforms on disabled people. (902865)

The Department engages regularly with the Cabinet Office on the different options for reshaping the current welfare system set out in the health and disability Green Paper, including on the potential impact on claimants with different health conditions.

The proposed reforms to personal independence payment unjustly target disabled people in a cost of living crisis. The Multiple Sclerosis Society found that nearly two in three people with MS said that the application process had a negative effect on their physical and mental health. Instead of pursing reforms that risk worsening inequality, will the Minister make representations to scrap informal observations to any PIP changes, as has already been done with the adult disability payment in Scotland?

We want to understand how best to target support for disabled people and those with health conditions, to provide the right kind of support for those who need it most, and to ensure value for the taxpayer. Providing the right support to people who need it most, and understanding long-term health conditions and how people want to live independently and reach their full potential, is key to that. We must also ensure that disabled people feel understood and have a voice, which is why I strongly urge people to be part of that consultation and have their say. We want to hear from disabled people—that is what they say to me: they want to be heard and understood.

In November, when I raised the concerns of Parkinson’s UK about changes to the work capability assessment, the then Minister agreed to meet the organisation. Six months on, there has been no meeting, and the Minister has replied to my follow-up written questions with standard answers about meeting a number of organisations. Will she step up to the plate and meet Parkinson’s UK to hear directly its concerns about the changes to welfare reform for those suffering from Parkinson’s?

I try not to give standard answers, and I will not give a standard answer to that question. I recently met people who were diagnosed with Parkinson’s early—perhaps as young as 35—and I am happy to meet more broadly with Parkinson’s UK. I recently met Mind, and as much as my diary allows, and at events in the House, I engage with advocates for disabled people and those with health conditions. I am happy to pick up that meeting, because if it is not already in my diary, it should be soon.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently concluded that the UK Government have

“failed to take all appropriate measures to address grave and systematic violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities and has failed to eliminate the root causes of inequality and discrimination.”

With those damning findings in mind, will the Minister confirm whether an equality impact on the proposed welfare reforms has been carried out, and if so, can we expect it to be made public?

I will write to the hon. Lady on that question. I can reassure her that I have met her and my counterparts in the devolved space regarding PIP reforms and the wider consultations, to ensure that we are hearing voices from everyone. As I said earlier, the UK is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, and we remain committed to ensuring that the UK is one of the best places to live and work as a disabled person. I come from caring and a family that lived with disablement. We must listen to disabled people, stop scaremongering and ensure that they are understood. That is exactly what our reforms and engagement are all about.

State Pension Equality

6. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on state pension equality. (902866)

Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions continue to have regular discussions about state pension inequality. We introduced the new state pension in 2016, which improves outcomes for many women. Outcomes will equalise for men and women by the early 2040s—more than a decade earlier than under the previous system.

Some WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women in Bedford are living in severe financial hardship, having had their pension income stolen, in some cases twice. Their right to compensation has been tested and won. Given that a WASPI woman dies every 13 minutes, does the Minister agree that a compensation scheme needs to be set up immediately? It should not be a one-size-fits-all package, but it must be simple, clear and easy to operate.

I know that this issue is very emotive. For all of us with constituents who are worried about their pension age, I remind them that pension credit provides a safety net for people on low incomes, so they should look at the benefits calculator on There will be a full debate on the ombudsman’s report tomorrow, and the Government will take all views into account as we identify and implement the next steps. The ombudsman’s report is complex and substantial, and the investigation covers 30 years. I appreciate that all parties want to see the situation resolved as quickly as possible. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said, there will be no undue delay, and we will be listening to everyone.

Sex-based Data: Health and Social Care

7. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to help ensure that health and social care providers collect sex-based data. (902867)

NHS England plans to make further changes to reporting on sex and gender in national datasets once the unified information standard for protected characteristics has been approved and published. This will unify reporting on eight of the nine protected characteristics, including gender reassignment and sex.

I know that the Secretary of State agrees that vulnerable women with learning disabilities and all women should be able to access same-sex care, particularly with regard to intimate physical care. That is especially important in the light of the shocking report by the Women’s Rights Network and Jo Phoenix on rape and sexual assault in hospitals and care settings. That is why the proper collection of data based on sex is vital. Does the Minister agree?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are currently consulting on the NHS constitution, which will give women not just the right to same-sex accommodation in hospitals, but the right to ask for someone of the same sex to conduct intimate examinations. There are safeguards, and we are looking at some of the incidents in trusts in order to better protect patients and staff. She is absolutely right to raise the issue of data collection and ensuring that that is happening.

Business Start-ups

8. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to encourage more people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities to start up a business. (902868)

The Government have worked to advance equality of access to start-up opportunities, irrespective of social background or race. We have a range of business support programmes and Government-backed financial support through Help to Grow: Management, growth hubs and the British Business Bank. The success of our endeavours to engage and support diverse business leaders can be seen in the data. In 2023, 44% of the 30,000 people in England helped by the business support helpline were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I thank the Minister for that response, although I found it a little difficult to hear. Bristol has a thriving and entrepreneurial Somali community, but one of the things they constantly come across is almost an expectation that they will set up businesses that serve just their community, rather than being part of mainstream regeneration efforts and the general commercial life of the city. What is the Equalities department doing to try to ensure that those people can make that breakthrough from just being community-based projects?

It is interesting that a number of people have that perception that they should stay in their lane. This Government do not support any sort of activity that is segregationist. We believe that we must treat people equally under the law. All of our access programmes are available irrespective of ethnicity. People should be encouraged to serve the entire community, not just people who look and sound like them. Some of the schemes that I mentioned in my earlier answer are available. The hon. Lady should know that the Start Up Loans Company reported that in her constituency 42 start-up loans were issued to ethnic minority-led start-ups, for about £315,000, so there are opportunities out there. I am happy to write to her with more information if she needs it.

Topical Questions

Institutions should be able to operate free from ideological pressures. I am delighted that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has retained its accreditation as an A-status national human rights institution, denoting full compliance with the Paris principles, despite Stonewall’s attempt to have it stripped of its status at the UN. As I have said before, Stonewall does not dictate the law in this country, or indeed in the UN. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, having retained its A-status, retains its independent participation rights at the UN Human Rights Council and remains able to report directly to the United Nations on human rights issues.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 25.3% of women are economically inactive, compared with 18.4% of men. Many women say that access to flexible working could see them return to the paid workplace. What steps is the Minister taking alongside her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that all workers have access to flexibility in their working hours?

There is a lot that my Department in particular is doing. We have put out multiple bits of legislation that will help to entrench workplace equality, whether that is around flexible working rights or sexual harassment in the workplace. We are doing more even on the trade side, where we continue to ensure that we have provisions that advance gender equality in our free trade agreements because we want to break down barriers and create opportunities for female entrepreneurs.

T2. I would like to raise an issue with the Minister that was raised with me at a recent constituency surgery. What are the Government doing to ensure that privacy and dignity for women is protected in toilet facilities? (902886)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are various reasons why women and men should be able to access single-sex spaces, and public toilets are no exception. We are updating building regulations so that toilets in non-domestic buildings offer safety, privacy and dignity for all people who use them. There is often confusion between gender-neutral toilets and unisex toilets. We support unisex toilets, but through these new building regulations we are trying to get rid of toilets and bathrooms where men and women share the same space.

T3. During the Northern Ireland Assembly campaign, some female candidates were subjected to AI-generated deepfakes and grossly offensive content. What action are the Government taking to regulate the dissemination of such imagery where it could affect the otherwise freely expressed choice of voters at the ballot box, especially as we approach a general election in the coming months? (902887)

The Online Safety Act 2023 introduced new offences that criminalise sharing or threatening to share an intimate image without consent, which includes deepfake intimate images. The Government are working to ensure that we are ready to respond to the full range of threats to our democratic processes, including through the defending democracy taskforce. If deepfakes are discovered by users on social media, they should report them directly to the platform. In the case of elections, they should be reported directly to the Electoral Commission, because it is already an electoral offence to make false statements of fact about the character or conduct of a candidate during an election.

Having endured an induced coma and six rounds of chemotherapy, 17-year-old Leoni Miller launched her new business at a WayfinderWoman event last month. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Leoni every success and outline what support and advice is available so that other young women see running their own business as a real prospect?

I wish Leoni every success. My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. In March, we proudly announced the launch of the invest in women taskforce, whose mission is to make the UK the best place in the world to be a female founder. Since the taskforce’s launch, its members have been working with the private sector to begin raising funds for female founders just like her constituent.

T4. Both Baroness Cumberlege in the “First Do No Harm” report and the patient safety commissioner in the Hughes report recommend a redress scheme for women harmed by surgical mesh. What conversations is the Minister having with Government colleagues to make the redress scheme a reality for those women, who are still suffering? (902888)

It is this Conservative Government who have commissioned the patient safety commissioner to do a report on what redress would look like. It is important that we take those recommendations in detail. We are looking at that and we aim to respond to the commissioner in the coming weeks.

Some sporting bodies have interpreted the Equality Act 2010 in such a way that they believe they cannot lawfully ban males who identify as girls or women from competing in women’s sport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that interpretation is not correct and that it is lawful to exclude all males from female sport to achieve safety and fairness for women and girls?

I agree. There is so much misinformation out there and incorrect guidance that creates confusion. I recently had a roundtable with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and she and I agreed that sports bodies in the UK need to tackle this area more strongly.