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House of Lords Hansard
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Equality: Hung Parliament
29 June 2017
Volume 783

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to affirm their commitment to equality in the light of the hung parliament and any arrangements they may make with other parties.

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My Lords, the Government’s commitment to equality is as strong today as it ever has been. There will be no backsliding or change of tack. I can assure noble Lords that events since the election have no impact on equality issues. The agreement with the DUP covers Brexit legislation, security legislation and votes on the Queen’s Speech.

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I am grateful for that Answer. However, we all know that the Conservative Party has given £1 billion to a party that denies the rights of the LGBT community and the rights of women over their own bodies in return for being able to stay in power. I am very grateful for the Minister’s assurances, but further to the amendment tabled in the Commons today will she ask her right honourable friend the Health Secretary to think seriously about extending the rights to free abortions on the NHS, where appropriate, to all British women, in Northern Ireland as well as on the mainland?

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My Lords, health, and by extension abortion law, in Northern Ireland is a transferred matter and the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. The policy position is that residents of Northern Ireland are entitled to access abortion services in England, but in general they must make their own private arrangements for doing so. On Tuesday, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Eames, reminded us of the history of Northern Ireland, and it must have struck noble Lords, as it did me, that it is far removed from much of what we will have experienced. That is a central consideration as we have this debate. I believe that it is right that abortion is a devolved matter. To pay for women from Northern Ireland seeking abortion in England might risk disrespecting the democratic decision of the Northern Ireland Government.

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Will the Government press their new allies in the DUP to reconsider their attitude to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, given that opinion polls show that just under 70% of people in Northern Ireland support same-sex marriage, which is roughly the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom?

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My Lords, the Civil Partnership Act introduced the concept of civil partnerships to the entirety of the UK. We now have same-sex marriage in England and Wales, and of course in Scotland, too. In Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage is not currently available but, again, it is a devolved matter. We must respect the democratic decision of the Northern Ireland Government. However, it behoves all of us to encourage those in Northern Ireland to look at this issue again and perhaps one day allow same-sex marriage.

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My Lords, I would like to press the Minister a little further, given the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. Does she find it acceptable that people in Northern Ireland are denied equality that is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom, especially on the issues of same-sex marriage and the rights to abortion?

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My Lords, I am not entirely sure what I can add further. These are devolved matters, and at the moment that is the way they will stay.

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My Lords, does my noble friend accept that either you devolve powers to regional Assemblies or you do not? If you devolve those powers, you must leave it up to them to decide what they want to do in their devolved areas.

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My noble friend is of course quite right, but each and every one of us can apply our own pressure in our own way.

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My Lords, given what the Minister said about no backsliding on equality, is she aware of how inequalities in the United Kingdom have widened? According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by 2020 child poverty is set to reach the level at which 5 million children live below the poverty line. Given what she said earlier about arrangements being made for Northern Ireland, can she assure us that there will be sufficient funds available for the rest of the country to ensure that inequalities on this scale do not continue?

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I thank the noble Baroness for her comment. I think it is well beyond my brief, and indeed my pay grade, to comment on such broad issues, but I am sure she will raise them again.

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My Lords, the Conservative manifesto at the last election said that the Conservative Government would be,

“unafraid to confront the burning injustices of the gender pay gap”,

and would work to close that gap by requiring,

“companies with more than 250 employees to publish more data on the pay gap between men and women”.

What practical steps are the Government taking to tackle the wider issue of economic inequality for women, especially with the gender pay gap at 18.1%? Will this be compromised in any way now that there is a hung Parliament, with a Government depending on the votes of the DUP?

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I thank the noble Baroness for that question. The gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been and we are committed to eliminating it entirely. She is quite right to say that it is currently 18.1%. I remind noble Lords that just 10 years ago it was at 25%. Through our leadership in the previous Parliament, we introduced the world’s first gender pay gap reporting. It is now operational and in its first year, and I look forward to seeing the results in 12 months’ time. The information will be published on a government-supported website. The Government remain absolutely committed to tackling the gender pay gap, and the arrangements with the DUP will not cause our commitment to waver. Indeed, I hope that our actions will have its support.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the new money agreed for Northern Ireland will go to benefit the whole of Northern Ireland, whether that be in education, health, economic development, inward investment or prioritising mental health—an issue that has been raised in this House on a number of occasions—not just in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the United Kingdom? The impression has been given that the money is going to the Democratic Unionist Party and to one side of the community. That is not the case.

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Of course, the noble Lord is quite right. This money is going to all important public services. It is about delivering the best for the whole of the United Kingdom, and given Northern Ireland’s history, any funding that goes to mental health should be warmly welcomed.