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The Minister was asked—

Child Care

1. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What steps she is taking to encourage those responsible for economic development and regeneration to include child care provision in their strategy. [25582]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The women and equality unit, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and the Regions and I have raised this issue directly with the chairs of the regional development agencies. They are currently discussing the best way in which RDAs can support child care provision.

Caroline Flint: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In my constituency, there is a very large brownfield site at the old RAF Finningley that we hope will become a regional airport. Tomorrow, I shall visit the Flying Start day nursery, which provides child care resources for employees of the 35 companies that are based there already. However, neither the RDA nor objective 1 status has helped the child care situation, and guidance is needed in two ways. First, where there is funding for facilitating or creating employment, the people who oversee that funding must recognise that child care is an important element. Secondly, deprived communities often benefit from community-based funding, and although a brownfield site may not be situated in a deprived community, it may provide employment opportunities for people from those communities. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that more lateral thinking and creativity are needed in those respects?

Ms Hewitt: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's expertise in this matter, and to her work in founding the all-party parliamentary group on child care. She makes an enormously important point whose relevance goes beyond her constituency. I want RDAs, councils and business partnerships to understand, when they plan new business sites, that providing for child care is as important as getting the transport links right. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills the specific matter of funding for child care in disadvantaged communities.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): May I first welcome the fact that the Government have devoted parliamentary time specifically to questions on women's issues? When I attended the induction programme for child minders in the Solihull borough, I was struck by the fact that the application pack that had to be filled in comprised six booklets. That deters many people from applying. Along with the demise of play groups under

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Labour, that has led to the fall in the number of child care places in many deprived areas. Does the Minister accept the need for more support and encouragement for community child-minding groups? They are crucial to the expansion of child care in such areas.

Ms Hewitt: I echo the hon. Lady's welcome for the introduction of this question session. If it is not exactly "Woman's Hour", it is at least women's 10 minutes. I also want to thank my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, who ensured that this innovation happened.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is right that community child-minding groups are enormously important. The Department's social enterprise unit, which I created, can help to promote them, as can the early-year child care partnerships that we have created around the country. However, I also point out that we have created new child care places already for more than three quarters of a million children. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that achievement and support us as we build on it.

Equal Pay

2. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What progress has been made on the Government's commitment to ensure equal pay reviews are carried out by March 2003. [25583]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Departments and agencies are at various stages of reviewing their pay systems. The Cabinet Office is about to issue comprehensive guidance to assist Departments and agencies in carrying out those reviews to ensure that our commitment is met.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. As someone who pressed for such a slot in 1997, I particularly welcome this dedicated Minister for Women's Question Time and hope that it will be extended.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of work carried out in the new Welsh Assembly? Its gender pay audit has discovered that a gap of as much as 10 per cent. exists between women's and men's pay in some posts. She may be aware that the Finance Minister has committed to find extra funds. Will she bring to the attention of Whitehall the information obtainable from the Welsh Assembly? In addition, will she talk speedily to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about how money can be made available if required to ensure that the civil service is brought into compliance with the Equal Pay Act 1970?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend has been a great champion for women, not least when she was Minister for Women. On the pay gap that continues to exist in the public sector, this week I have written to all my Cabinet colleagues asking them to co-ordinate and to bring together examples of best practice on equal pay and on flexible working in their Departments and agencies, so that we can do much better across the board. I note that already several Departments and agencies have included proposals to

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reduce the pay gap in their settlement for the current year. I will certainly pick up the point that she makes about the work in the Welsh Assembly.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I add my welcome to the 10 minutes, but with a slight note of caution because I notice that a number of questions have been withdrawn. If we have a very narrow focus for women, we are not doing the job properly.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must speak to the question.

Sandra Gidley: I come to my question now, Mr. Speaker.

The equal opportunities task force has recommended that there be a legal liability on employers to audit staff pay to highlight any gender discrepancies and to remedy the situation. Will the Minister commit to introduce such legislation and if so when?

Ms Hewitt: In the private sector, it is much better, within the legal framework that we have got and that we are strengthening, to spread the use of pay audits by means of promoting best practice, which we are doing, particularly through the fair pay champions and the Castle awards. That is better than introducing another statutory requirement on business.

Flexible Working

3. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): How the Government intend to review the operation of the new statutory scheme on flexible working. [25584]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We plan to carry out surveys of employers and employees before the legislation on flexible working is implemented to provide a baseline against which to judge changes. We will then repeat the surveys three years after the legislation has been implemented. We will monitor experience from day one through calls to helplines, tribunal cases and so on. That will give us the basis for deciding what further changes may be needed.

Ann McKechin: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. She will be aware of the appointment this week of the new permanent secretary at the Department for International Development—a male member of staff—on a flexible hours contract to allow him more access to his six-year-old daughter. Does she agree that that represents an excellent example of how flexible working can be incorporated in all levels of work, including senior management, and that the review should consider extending the benefits of flexible working to parents of children aged between six and 10?

Ms Hewitt: We will examine that specific question about the age of the child when we review the effectiveness of the new law but fundamentally it is about achieving a massive culture change within business and the public sector. I agree with what my hon. Friend has said about Suma Chakrabarti's appointment as permanent secretary at DFID. Within my own Department, I have created a partnership group of management and the work

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force to look at how we can do more to change our working culture. I look forward to the time when we have the first pair of job-sharing Ministers in government.

Equal Pay

4. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): What steps she is taking to encourage equal pay for women. [25586]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government have taken a number of steps already to improve levels of pay for women, including the introduction of the national minimum wage, which has benefited around 1 million women. The Employment Bill that is now going through the House will provide improved maternity rights to help ensure that more women return to their original jobs, and will strengthen the Equal Pay Act 1970 with the introduction of equal pay questionnaires.

Julie Morgan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that she is aware that NOP research on

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equal pay, conducted for the Equal Opportunities Commission, showed that 93 per cent. thought that their pay structures were fair, but that only a third had actually checked whether they were fair. How can we overcome such problems, and how confident is my right hon. Friend that employers will check their pay systems for fairness voluntarily?

Ms Hewitt: The research to which my hon. Friend refers, as well as research that has been carried out in government and in the EOC, makes it clear that the causes of unequal pay are complex. Such research includes the fact that many women spend some of their working life in part-time employment, usually trading lower pay for the hours that they want. All the steps that we are taking to promote flexible working, as well as making it easier for women to obtain information about the pay structure in their firms, will also help to close the pay gap. I was campaigning for equal pay 30 years ago, and I do not want my daughter's generation to have to carry on doing that in 10 or 20 years.

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