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Topical Questions

Volume 626: debated on Thursday 6 July 2017

In April, our groundbreaking legislation on the gender pay gap came into force. This weekend we are celebrating London Pride, where people come together to celebrate how far we have come and to keep up the pressure for progress in LGBT equality. I look forward to joining those celebrations. Fifty years ago this year, Parliament voted to decriminalise male homosexuality in England and Wales, and this year’s general election returned the most openly LGBT MPs Parliament has ever had. Finally, and importantly, I outlined last week how the Government will ensure that women from Northern Ireland seeking an abortion in England will no longer have to pay for NHS treatment.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the Government’s efforts to empower women economically internationally?

I think that we can be proud of the work that this country is doing, not just here at home, but internationally, to beat the drum for women’s economic empowerment. In fact, alongside the work that we have been part of at the UN, this week the Prime Minister will attend the G20 summit in Germany, where women’s economic empowerment will be a priority, and we will keep on being a champion of that.

The Minister will be aware of the levels of persecution, intolerance and hate crime towards transgender people. Can she therefore confirm whether she has plans to develop a new transgender action plan, in line with the previous response to the Women and Equalities Committee? Also, do the Government plan to conduct a review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We responded very constructively and positively to the Select Committee’s important report, and we have been very clear that we will review the Gender Recognition Act. That sits alongside a lot of other work that we will be doing to ensure that we take action on this.

T4. The excellent Leonard Cheshire charity has estimated the disability employment gap to be 31.3%. What are the Government doing to close it? (900250)

On 7 September this year we will have the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Cheshire, the Victoria Cross-winning founder of this great disability charity, so I support this question and this great organisation. The Government remain strongly committed to helping people with disabilities and health conditions get back into work. Over the past three years more than 500,000 people have done so, and we have a Green Paper setting out the full details of the matter.

T2. The Minister for Women and Equalities has this morning heard the overwhelming view across the House on the WASPI issue, following yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate. Is she not embarrassed by the Government’s current policy, and what will she do to change it? (900248)

I know that there was an important debate yesterday in Westminster Hall. This is an important area, but it is also important that we have a steady transition, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has set out. I am content that the way the Government are handling this, which follows on from previous Governments, is the right way. The hon. Gentleman should also reflect on the fact that we have invested £1.1 billion to ensure that there is support during the transition.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Women’s Leadership Network conference, alongside the principal of Eastleigh College. Confidence is key in getting women back to work, particularly returners, or climbing up the ladder. What are the Government doing to encourage returneeships so that we can support what the Prime Minister has said?

As part of the Budget the Chancellor announced a £5 million fund for returneeships, which we know disproportionately help women returning to the workplace. Industry is already doing some groundbreaking and innovative work. We want to use the fund to help develop that work and hopefully mainstream it.

T3. A TUC survey of workplace representatives found that one in three respondents have reported management criticism of menopause-related sick leave. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing discrimination faced by women during the menopause? (900249)

Any discrimination of that nature is entirely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, through my Department and the Government Equalities Office, we have discussions across Government to see what more can be done to strengthen the legal framework within which businesses operate, but the framework is already there and it is important that we ensure that it is enforced.

Following an earlier question, women must feel that they can bring forward cases of maternity discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people from all backgrounds can access justice?

The question that I think my hon. Friend is getting to is whether there has been a change in access as a result of changes in fees. We considered this issue very carefully, because it was the case, particularly when we talked with small and medium-sized enterprises, that very many vexatious tribunal claims were being brought—[Interruption.] They were. An hon. Lady on the Opposition Benches says, “Rubbish.” She should get out and talk to some businesses sometime and hear what they think. A change was therefore made. We are now reviewing the help for fees scheme so that we can understand exactly what is going on. However, there is no evidence that maternity discrimination cases have been particularly affected by the fees.

T5. Following recent reports of arrests in relation to planned attacks at an LGBT event in Barrow, what discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office to further combat far-right extremism? (900251)

Hate crime is entirely unacceptable. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have developed and are now funding a hate crime action plan. Alongside that, it is important that we work upstream. The work that we are now doing on bullying in schools can play a massive role in the long term. I also draw the House’s attention to the recent social attitudes survey, which really showed that tolerance and inclusiveness of LGBT rights are now widely accepted across the country, but there are clearly still pockets of intolerance, which we absolutely have to combat.

There are record numbers of women in this Parliament, but women are still outnumbered by men two to one. Will the Government consider the recommendation in the report of the Women and Equalities Committee to bring into action section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that each political party is transparent about the gender of the candidates they field?

We will be responding to the Committee’s report. These are incredibly important issues for our country. I am concerned to ensure that, although we have now broadly got up to a third of parliamentarians who are female, we do not now plateau. We all have a role in ensuring that we continue to see progress, and I assure my right hon. Friend that I am committed to ensuring that the Government play a leading role in that, and I am proud that we also have a female Prime Minister.

T6. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, so they are disproportionately hit by the public sector pay cap. What is the Minister doing to argue the case for scrapping the cap? (900252)

We have an evidence-based approach in relation to public sector pay. An independent group of people looks at the pressures on the public purse and at ensuring that our pay settlements are affordable. It also looks at the evidence in relation to recruitment, retention and the numbers of people we want in our public sector, particularly on the front line. That is a sensible approach. The hon. Lady will be aware that a number of pay review bodies will come out with their reports across the board, and we will consider them when they do.

As my right hon. Friend confirmed earlier, the gender pay gap is at its smallest ever, but more needs to be done. What work is being done to encourage girls and women to choose careers in high-paying sectors traditionally dominated by men, especially Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who have the largest gender pay gap?

We heard a question about STEM subjects earlier. That is one of the most important areas where we can really start to level up girls and women in the workplace. More generally, it is important that all girls going through school understand that there is a career ahead of them that they can aim for. That is not just about the subjects they do; it is about ensuring that their attitudes and expectations are suitably high.

T7. Nottingham Women’s Centre recently launched its “Help through Crisis” report—Big Lottery-funded research that indicates that women often experience multiple disadvantage and have complex needs that are not currently being met. May I invite the Minister to visit Nottingham Women’s Centre, meet some of the women who took part in that research and discuss how she will ensure the provision of appropriate holistic services for women with multiple and complex needs? (900253)

I am grateful for that very kind offer. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), will also have heard that request for a visit. From my personal experience as a local MP, I know the amazing work that many such centres do, so I thank the hon. Lady for her invite and I will ensure that somebody responds. I would love to visit.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of vile online abuse on people, particularly women, coming forward to stand for public office?

Following this election, the issue has never been higher on the political agenda. As somebody who did not have a particular life mission to become an MP, but wanted to play a constructive role in my community and represent it in this place, I think it is important that we get rid of this aggressive sort of political campaigning. It does our democracy no good and puts decent people off running for Parliament, and that is a bad thing.

The Scottish Government have committed to increase the number of women on public boards, and the Partnership for Change 50/50 campaign encourages the private, third and public sectors to achieve gender balance on boards by 2020. At the current rate of change, gender balance will take several decades, so when will the UK Government follow the Scottish Government’s lead?

Since 2010, the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled, and we now have the highest percentage ever—over 24%. We have the lowest number of all-male boards in the FTSE 350, with only six remaining. It is not good enough, and we need to make more progress, but progress is being made. The work that the Government are doing through the Women’s Business Council to stimulate a culture change is very important. Diversity and women are good for business.

Order. As we come to the first of the two urgent questions that I have granted today, can I please remind colleagues of the importance of sticking to the time limits that have been declared and communicated repeatedly to colleagues? Obviously this is particularly relevant to the Front Benchers—the person who secured the UQ and who has the allocated two minutes, and the Minister answering it, who has the allocated three minutes. We really do need to stick to the limits, because otherwise it is very unfair on Back Benchers.

No, no—I am not taking points of order now. Points of order come after UQs and statements, but we will look forward to hearing the hon. Lady; we are saving her up for later on in the day.