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Minister for Equalities

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what the responsibilities of the Minister for Equalities will be, and whether they will update the website to list those responsibilities.

The Minister for Equalities’ role represents all aspects of the women and equalities portfolio in Cabinet. The portfolio has not changed and includes all areas of his predecessor’s portfolio. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister’s spokesperson shortly after the appointment of the Minister for Equalities and has been reflected on GOV.UK. The Cabinet role will be supported by the newly appointed Minister for Women in the other place and by me here in the House of Lords.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I am still curious as to why Minister Zahawi is nervous of having women and equalities in his job title; you would think he would be proud to carry a title showing concern for over half the population. Even more puzzling—maybe it shows the priority this Government are giving to equalities issues—is that it took six weeks and my questions for the responsibilities to be put on GOV.UK. Well, better late than never. When can we expect an equalities impact assessment of the mini-Budget and how it will affect women, black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people and others with protected characteristics?

I do not know when an impact assessment will be available, but I am sure one will be. On the whole question of having “women” in the title, the designation of job titles is way above my pay grade. I cover all aspects of the portfolio in the Lords, and I would rather be defined by what we do and not what we are called.

My Lords, I too checked the Government’s website this morning, after recent events, to check who is responsible for women. I saw that Katherine Fletcher MP is down as the current Minister for Women, which of course we welcome—the more Ministers we have focusing on these issues, the better. Figures show that women have been brutally exposed to and are bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis. They are disproportionately affected by surging poverty levels. That in turn affects their families and children particularly. I am sure that the Minister, who we know is extremely sympathetic to these issues, has heard harrowing reports of women missing meals in order to feed their children. Will there be an impact assessment specifically on the impact of the cost of living crisis, given the stark figures? If there has not been one, are there any plans for one—particularly for disabled women and women from minority communities, who are really suffering? Their children are suffering as well. Will the Minister take this up?

My Lords, I am very concerned about the push in society to erase the word “women”. It is very worrying. It is disempowering to 50% of the population; it makes women’s experiences invisible. Will the Equalities Minister, as one of his responsibilities, protect the word “women” and prevent it being replaced by gender-neutral language—particularly in public service institutions where Governments have power to do something?

I think that is a very important intervention and the noble Baroness can see from the House’s response that people agree with it. I have my first meeting with Nadhim Zahawi next week and I will put that on the agenda.

My Lords, there is nervousness about using the word “woman”. Last night at the PinkNews Awards, Keir Starmer declared that he would make it a crime to misgender. That means people might use the word “woman”, but nobody will define what a woman is. Maybe that nervousness is because people are frightened of misgendering and getting dragged into the gender wars. Can the Minister assure us that “equalities” means that biological women will not have their rights sidelined by an equalities agenda based on gender identity?

One at a time, please. As far as I am concerned, I agree completely with the noble Baroness and will try to ensure that that happens.

My Lords, this House has a really superb reputation for equality, inclusion and diversity. Can the Minister explain why it is necessary in these challenging economic times for the House of Lords to be advertising for a new inclusion and diversity officer on quite a hefty salary?

That is a very good question. I do not know as I have not seen the advert but I will go away and find out. I am sorry that I did not know that that position had been advertised and cannot answer the question accurately. I think I am going to be speaking to the Clerk of the Parliaments to get an answer, but it is a very good point.

Does my noble friend agree that there is one area where, to advance women’s equality, we need to improve men’s rights? That is on paternity leave. If we want parents to be able to share caring responsibilities, we need to give them more equal rights. That means improving paternity leave and pay. However, given current economic circumstances, maybe a smaller step the Government could take would be to make paternity leave a day one employment right, as it is for maternity.

That is another very good point. In 2019, the Government consulted on high-level options for reforming the parental leave and pay system, including making changes to paternity leave. We are currently considering responses to the consultation and will respond in due course.

My Lords, could the Minister demonstrate how, with this very broad role, she is actively engaging with women and ensuring that they are linked to the issues that other noble Lords have raised, and promoting equality for women in this country in her daily workload, including tackling low pay in care and the NHS?

The noble Baroness again raises the issue of people in the care industry on low pay. Obviously, we need to increase pay so that people can live a decent life, but as far as my job is concerned, I am full strength on equalities issues relating to women. I have just come back from the G7, where I represented women. I spoke really vociferously because, as I said in my speech, women are underrepresented, they are underpaid and they are underutilised.

My Lords, my views on identity politics are pretty well known both in this House and publicly. I might help the Minister by suggesting that it might be that the inclusion and diversity post is about ensuring that all people from all backgrounds—whether they have disabilities or not—feel included in and are given the support they need to fully participate in this House. Would that not be a good thing?

It certainly would be a good thing and I am sure people in this Chamber are listening to the recommendation of the noble Lord.

Will the Government reconsider the decision to abolish the Women’s National Commission, which represented over 100 different women’s organisations around the country? I speak as a former government co-chairman of the Women’s National Commission. The opportunity for women to meet and speak to a Government Minister who then took up the cudgel for whatever the issue was with any other government department had a lot of value at the time. I hope my noble friend will reconsider it.

I had no knowledge of this organisation, but I am very happy to ask the question in the equalities department and come back to the noble Baroness in writing. I will place a copy in the Library.

Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government base their equalities policy on evidence or, as the Prime Minister does, on campaigns run by certain groups following a distinct ideology against women?

As far as I am concerned, evidence is the only thing on which to base a decision. My understanding is that that is the position of the Government.

My Lords, among all the excitement about what people are called, would it not be better if we return to a common-sense approach where courtesy and kindness to all prevail?

My Lords, with the greatest thanks and courtesy to the Minister for mentioning the gender pay gap earlier, does she agree that when the state cares about an area of law or regulation, it takes some direct responsibility for its enforcement, whether it is school standards or environmental protection? Is it not time that we considered amending the Equality Act so that a state agency takes responsibility for enforcing equal pay?

On the gender pay gap, we have set up a reporting system: we are requiring employers to report their gap, and our gap is now down to 14%. It is not good, but it will get better; we are focusing our efforts on that. In relation to the technical point made by the noble Baroness about having somebody responsible for that, I am being asked a lot of questions today that I have to take back. I hope that nobody takes that as me trying to avoid answering the question.