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Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Thursday 27 October 2016

This Government have been clear that we want to build a country that works for everyone, which is why we are so determined to close the gender pay gap. I am therefore pleased that the Office for National Statistics recently released figures showing that the gap has narrowed significantly from 19.3% to 18.2%, reflecting the hard work of so many, not least the business community. That also reminds us that if we are to keep closing the gap, and close it completely, we must keep driving progress forward. That is why we extended the right to request flexible working and introduced a new system of flexible parental leave. We are also introducing mandatory gender pay gap reporting for large employers from April next year.

Baroness Cox has long campaigned in the other place for the abolition of sharia councils, largely because of the unfair way in which they treat many women. Will the Government support Baroness Cox’s private Member’s Bill on the issue and ensure that Muslim women enjoy the same protections under the law as everyone else and do not feel pressured into having their cases determined by a sharia council rather than a British court?

I assure my hon. Friend that that issue is of utmost importance. We know of concerns about sharia councils, including those raised in Baroness Cox’s Bill, and take them extremely seriously. The Government will respond to the Bill on Second Reading and will continue to consider the issue in the light of the findings of the independent sharia review, which was launched in May by the previous Home Secretary, now Prime Minister.

T5. Figures just out from NHS Digital show that 28% of women aged 16 to 24 have a mental health condition. Alarmingly, reports of self-harm among that age group trebled to 20% between 2007 and 2014. Despite that, a survey of 35 mental health trusts carried out by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, showed that just one had a specific women-only mental health strategy. What action is the Minister taking to address that serious issue which is affecting women in our country? (906839)

As constituency MPs, we all see such issues locally, and the House is holding a worthwhile Backbench Business debate later on the broader topic of young people and mental health. This country has a long way to go to deliver on our ambition to ensure that mental health provision is on a par with the rest of our healthcare provision. As the hon. Lady highlights, that should include understanding the different levels of mental health challenges faced by different parts of our community, of which women and girls make up 50%.

T2. Reports this week indicate that female entrepreneurs, such as Clover Lewis of Clover Lewis Swimwear, struggle to access start-up capital. Male entrepreneurs often receive up to 90% of all available start-up funding, but the return on investment with female entrepreneurs is on average much better than with men. What steps is the Minister taking to stimulate lending to address that anomaly? (906836)

I am so pleased that my hon. Friend mentions Clover Lewis Swimwear. I have met Clover Lewis, who does outstanding work creating swimwear for women who have undergone mastectomy surgery. We are absolutely committed to supporting women to start and grow their own businesses, and I am proud that Britain has been named as one of the best places in Europe for female entrepreneurs. My hon. Friend will be as pleased as I am that 40% of the loans given out by the Government’s StartUp loans company since it was established have gone to women, providing funding to more than 15,500 women and totalling £87 million.

T6. Will the Secretary of State welcome the Women into Tech initiative, which just goes to show how many women can get into business in tech? Will she help our campaign to improve the numeracy of girls and young women, as that is the key link between success in management later and everything else? (906840)

We had a question earlier about STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and the importance of ensuring that girls are taking those. It is important not just for those wishing to pursue a career in engineering, for example; these subjects, and maths in particular, open up all sorts of doors for our young girls. That is why it is so important that the kinds of initiatives the hon. Gentleman has just talked about are in place to help deliver on those aspirations.

T3. A recurring theme for the Science and Technology Committee is the lack of progress being made in achieving gender balance across the scientific community, both in business and academia. What work are my right hon. Friend and her Department doing to remove barriers faced by women? What steps are being taken to ensure that work is integrated with ongoing efforts in the universities sector, particularly Athena SWAN? (906837)

My hon. Friend is right to say that business needs to work hand in hand with the Government on this, and the Women’s Business Council has been enhanced by this Government to now include representatives of and membership from the science, engineering and construction industries. That is very much linked in with not only my Department, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We have particularly welcomed initiatives such as Athena SWAN, which are doing so much to move this agenda steadily and progressively forward.

Gypsies and Travellers suffer particularly poor outcomes across a range of measures, but too many Government Departments and agencies are still not recognising them as distinct ethnic groups in accordance with the 2011 census categorisation. What can the Secretary of State do to encourage the use of that categorisation right across government—national and local?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. The Select Committee on Women and Equalities has recently announced that it will be examining it, and I know it will do so with its customary rigour and intensity. We look forward very much to hearing what the Committee comes up with.

T4. Online misogyny and other abusive online behaviour is damaging young people’s self-esteem and is even undermining their mental health. Does the Minister agree that social media platforms must face up to their responsibilities to keep young users safe online? (906838)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is something that all parents worry about, and social media platforms must take some responsibility for it. This year, we invested almost half a million pounds in the Safer Internet Centre to provide advice on how to keep children safe, and we are developing guidance on cyber-bullying for schools, which will be published shortly.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the closure of the only UK lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity, Broken Rainbow, in August. Sadly, this very much mirrored what happened to Kids Company, with the closure being reported by Patrick Strudwick of BuzzFeed. Will she work with me, him and others who are interested in this to put pressure on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Charity Commission to have a full review of this and make sure that LGBT people in this country have access to domestic abuse support?

I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady further about the specific issue she has just raised, which is of concern. Only last night, I was at the PinkNews awards, which celebrates a huge amount of the work that is happening on the ground to push forward on LGBT rights. It is important that this work can continue.

T7. The new head of John Lewis, the head of the National Crime Agency, the Prime Minister and, with any luck, the next President of the United States of America are all women at the top of their fields. Does the Minister agree that having strong women at the head of organisations is one of the best ways to encourage women into professions, and what is she doing to promote that? (906841)

I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend, as we cannot overestimate the value of role models at every level and in every sector, inspiring girls and other women to follow them. We now have more women on boards than ever before. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Women in key roles, such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned, provide massive inspiration to girls and other women, as indeed does having a female Prime Minister.

I come back to the issue of STEM subjects. We do fantastic work in west Cumbria in encouraging women into the nuclear industry, and it would be great if the Minister could recognise that and look at how we can work it. However, often when I go to meetings at a senior level I find that I am the only woman in the room or, if I am not, that there are only one or two of us. What can we do to encourage women to come right the way up through to the senior level?

It is about building the ladder at all levels. We have talked about the importance of STEM subjects, and there will be a national college that will focus on skills for the nuclear industry, which is the next stage. As the hon. Lady says, many of us have been to meetings where we are the only woman at the table, and we need to play our part as role models to encourage the next generation to aim high.