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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 January 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—

Public Appointments (Women)

1. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What progress has been made in increasing the number of women in public appointments. [23441]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Government are committed to increasing diversity in public appointments. We are determined that women should hold half of all public appointments. I shall host a series of seminars across the country to encourage more women to apply for such appointments. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will attend the seminar in Tyneside.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does she share my disappointment that Dame Rennie Fritchie's last report showed that we had moved backwards in the participation of women in public appointments? Will the Minister ask Departments to undertake equality audits of the criteria that they use for making public appointments so that we can ensure that women's experience of using public services and of voluntary participation are properly counted when public appointments are being made?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some Departments—for example, the Department of Health—have recently done well with regard to appointments. When we consider public appointments, of course we need to look at experience across the whole range. That is why voluntary work is so important—as is the presence of so many women as school governors.

The forms will be revised. The new format asks for examples of relevant skills gained within any field, such as voluntary work. Furthermore, the form will no longer feature an honours section—an aspect that may have deterred some people from applying.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Given the need to encourage women to apply for public appointments, might not women be influenced by the fate of women who hold such appointments, such as Elizabeth

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France, the information commissioner, who has indicated that she is not seeking reappointment, as her four-year term of office would not have enabled her at any stage to use the freedom of information powers due to the Government's delay? Do not the Government need to be seen to support those women who take on public appointments?

Mrs. Roche: It is a great pity that the right hon. Gentleman has gone down that track. As he knows, Elizabeth France leaves her position with a great deal of good will for her tremendous work, and the Government—and everybody—have the highest regard for her. It is well recognised that after two terms the usual practice is to hold an open competition. That is what is taking place in this case.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I say how much I welcome all the work that the Government are doing to encourage more women into public life? I welcome the series of seminars. When my hon. Friend organises where they are to be held, will she look closely at holding one in north Staffordshire, in order that we can encourage more women—especially young women—to take up public office?

Mrs. Roche: It is not possible to cover everywhere, but of course we shall consider where we are holding the seminars, and we shall also try to ensure that the participants invited to them come from the widest possible area.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Is the hon. Lady aware that women applying for public appointments in health authorities have to declare their political affiliation? Does she agree that Conservative women are thus at a double disadvantage?

Mrs. Roche: I reject that completely. The hon. Lady should look at the record of the previous Conservative Government, whom she supported.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): What is the overall position of ethnic minority women as regards public appointments?

Mrs. Roche: We want to look at that aspect. We shall try to publish some targets in the near future.

British-Irish Council

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): If he will make a statement on his role in relation to the British-Irish Council. [23443]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): I carry ministerial responsibility for the British-Irish Council and deputise for the Prime Minister at summit meetings when he is not able to attend.

Mr. Amess: Why, before the Belfast agreement had been implemented, did the Government start making concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA—concessions that were not required and have not been reciprocated—in terms of

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special arrangements for their Members of Parliament to have offices in the House and an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Those matters have been addressed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the House has been informed of the Government's position. It did not affect the decisions at the summit meetings.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The British-Irish Council is an executive body, but there is a de facto shadow parliamentary body: the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Unfortunately, Ulster Unionists will not attend its meetings because they see it as having come out of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Would not it be a good idea to move towards establishing it as a parliamentary wing of the British-Irish Council under the provisions of the Belfast agreement? Ulster Unionists could then join without a problem.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: My hon. Friend has expressed that view on a number of occasions. I personally take the view that the British-Irish Council is the best way to deal with those difficulties in Northern Ireland. That is the Government's position, and it is what we intend to do.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for what he has said on this important topic. May I remind him that, as the Prime Minister and many other Ministers on all sides have rightly said, the Belfast agreement must be seen to be operating in all its particulars simultaneously? He will know that it was envisaged that the Council of the Isles would meet twice a year at summit level, but it has not yet been possible for it to do so. Is his aim and hope that it will meet twice at summit level this year?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. It was the intention, as originally set out in the agreement, to meet twice a year. There have been certain difficulties: one of the meetings was cancelled because it would have taken place on the day of the sad death of the First Minister in Scotland. Of course, the difficulties of the discussions in Northern Ireland also meant that we could not hold the council meeting. It is our intention to hold meetings twice a year; the next meeting will be held in Jersey.

Social Exclusion

3. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): What steps he is taking to promote better co-ordination between Government Departments in relation to combating social exclusion. [23444]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The social exclusion unit works with all other relevant Departments in developing policy to combat social exclusion. Part of the unit's implementation strategy includes establishing units in other Departments that can co-ordinate activity across Whitehall.

Roger Casale: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree with Churches Together in Wimbledon and many

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other voluntary and charitable organisations in my constituency that we should continue to strengthen the role of the Government in tackling the plight of homelessness and rough sleepers in major cities, such as London, and that a joined-up approach to government, involving many Departments working together, may be essential to achieve lasting success in relation to those issues?

Mrs. Roche: Yes. I congratulate the rough sleepers unit, led by Louise Casey, on its remarkable achievement—a 62 per cent. reduction in numbers. By March 2002, the unit will have provided more than 1,000 additional places in hostels. The joined-up approach has been achieved because different Departments—for example, the Ministry of Defence, which has done some very good work in this area—are working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to ensure that people engage in prevention work as well.

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Does the Minister agree that one of the factors that leads to social exclusion is inadequate mental health services for children and young people? Will she personally examine the system of funding young people's mental health services? Does she believe that there should be education, social services and health care, or it is that, at the lower end, the burden is placed on the Home Office because the young people become subject to prison sentences? In particular, will she reply to me about the funding of Young Minds—an excellent organisation that is unable to get funding from any of those different joined-up Departments?

Mrs. Roche: The right hon. Lady makes a very serious point about the fact that this issue involves not just one Department; it goes across several Departments, which is why she may well be interested in several of the social exclusion unit's current projects, which range from the educational achievement of young people in care to ex-offenders. I undertake to write to her about the details of the funding issue that she raises, but a number of Departments have worked together to address the subject of young people, especially children at risk.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): What methodology is used to target social need and overcome social exclusion? Do the Government plan to revise the means by which social need is targeted?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman raises an important subject. There are many reasons why people go in and out of poverty. Of course, income levels are part of that, so the most frequently used measure is that of households below 60 per cent. of median income, but there are other causes. For example, lack of skills or qualifications and poor health can have an effect, which is why a co-ordinated approach is needed.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I applaud the Government on their wish to tackle social exclusion. It is a noble objective but, as the Minister will recognise, it is important to judge it by results rather than by rhetoric. Will she reconfirm the commitment made by the Prime Minister in 1996

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Mrs. Roche: I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman raises this issue given the position that his Government took on dealing with housing and homelessness. Of course, there is an obligation not only to tackle rough sleeping but to examine the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and to see what can be done about them. That is why the Government are engaging in a programme with social landlords to make sure that much more social housing is available.

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