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Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021

We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I am convening a group of leaders in the G7 gender equality advisory council this year under the newly appointed chair, Sarah Sands, with leaders such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, Ritu Karidhal, who helped to lead India’s Mars orbital mission and Iris Bohnet, who has revolutionised our understanding of fairness in the work- place. Together, we can lead on education for women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, and ending violence against women across the world.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I commend her on her choice of Darlington for the newly announced Department for International Trade hubs? I look forward to welcoming her to the Tees Valley. I also welcome her commitment to a ban on conversion therapy. Does she agree that this so-called therapy is abuse and that those who perpetrate such abuse should be prevented in law from being able to do so? As a gay man and a Christian, I believe that such controls must also extend to religious organisations that seek to change a person’s sexuality. Will she ensure that the ban extends to these too?

I was delighted to announce yesterday that we will be bringing a trade and investment hub to Darlington. We are also looking at moving the headquarters of our Equalities Office to the north of England, and no doubt Darlington will be putting in a bid for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to stamp out coercion and causing people harm wherever it takes place. That is what I am determined to do, and that is what I will be bringing forward shortly.

Over the past 10 days we have seen the Government try to defend their poor record on ending violence against women. They have recently reopened the consultation on this issue, but there is no use in consulting people if the Government are not going to take any action. Take the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which closed 18 months ago. We have seen no response from the Minister and no action from the Government, despite the fact that half of women experience sexual harassment at work. Can the Minister tell the House today when she will respond to this consultation and take the much-needed action to end sexual harassment?

It is quite wrong to say that the Government are taking no action on tackling violence against women. We will be publishing a new strategy in spring 2021, which will help to better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. The call for evidence to input into this work has been extended to 26 March, and it is vital that we hear from women everywhere, especially given recent public discussions and concerns.

There is so much that we have been doing, including the end-to-end rape review, which is looking at how every stage of the criminal justice system handles rape cases from police report to the final outcome at court. If the hon. Lady does want to work with us to end violence against women, the way to do it is constructively and not by making accusations that we are not taking any action.

We on this side of the House are very committed to ending violence against women and girls, but there is a pattern with this Government. They consult and they review, but they take very little action.

Yesterday we marked a year since the first national lockdown. The pandemic, as we all know, has had an unequal impact on our black, Asian and ethnic minority people. Last July, the Prime Minister commissioned a review into race and ethnic disparities. It was due to be published in December last year, than they delayed it until February this year, and it is now nearly April and still no report.

Can the Minister tell us when the Prime Minister intends to publish his report, and will it be accompanied by a race equality strategy to tackle the ongoing structural and institutional inequalities?

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will be reporting shortly, but it is disappointing that the hon. Lady seems to forget it is an independent commission. It is not the Prime Minister but an independent commission that will be publishing the report. What will happen afterwards is that the Government will provide their response to the commission’s recommendations, and we shall wait and see what the commission recommends.

What I have intended is that the commission has the freedom and the space to provide a set of recommendations that are robust. We are doing this not on dates but on data, and we need to make sure it is something that will stand the test of time and not just be a response to Opposition Members who are not actually interested in solving this problem but want to use it politically.

One of the less talked about but more impactful and successful recent Government-run programmes is the period product scheme for schools and colleges in England, which provides access to free sanitary products for those in education, including approximately 5,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in my Wakefield constituency. Many women across the UK, however, continue to struggle with access to sanitary products, including those experiencing homelessness and those in financial hardship as a consequence of the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend kindly outline for the House what steps she is taking to promote access to female sanitary products? (913986)

The Government have taken several important steps to ensure women are able to access the sanitary products they need. From 1 January 2021 the tampon tax has been abolished, with a zero rate of VAT applied to women’s sanitary products coming into effect. The Department for Education is leading a scheme to provide access to free period products in schools and colleges in England, NHS England announced in March 2019 that it will offer free period products to every hospital patient who needs them, including long-term patients, and the Home Office has changed the law to ensure that all people in custody are provided with free health and hygiene products, including period products.

In lockdown, we have all become much more dependent on technology, yet that technology is not designed to treat us equally, with video-conferencing and photo-sharing apps that do not recognise black faces, recruitment algorithms that discriminate on ethnicity, and the Home Office’s own visa application algorithm withdrawn because of bias. In this week of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what is the Minister doing to prevent structural racism from being further entrenched by new technologies? (913980)

The hon. Lady raises a very interesting question, and this is something the Government are aware of and are looking into. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tony Sewell, who is chairing the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities; I am aware that it has researched this extensively and I look forward to seeing what its report says on it.

I am sorry we did not get as many Members in as normal, but we have to move on to questions to the Prime Minister.